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Chapter 6

Moths of the Moon: Actias Luna


One morning there was a tap at my door, and when I opened it I found a tall, slender woman having big, soft brown eyes, and a winning smile. In one hand she held a shoe-box, having many rough perforations. I always have been glad that my eyes softened at the touch of pleading on her face, and a smile sprang in answer to hers before I saw what she carried. For confession must be made that a perforated box is a passport to my good graces any day.

The most wonderful things come from those that are brought to my front door. Sometimes they contain a belated hummingbird, chilled with the first heavy frost of autumn, or a wounded weasel caught in a trap set for it near a chicken coop, or a family of baby birds whose parents some vandal has killed. Again they carry a sick or wounded bird that I am expected to doctor; and butterflies, moths, insects, and caterpillars of every description.

"I guess I won't stop," said the woman in answer to my invitation to enter the Cabin. "I found this creature on my front porch early this morning, and I sort of wanted to know what it was, for one thing, and I thought you might like to have it, for another."

"Then of course you will come in, and we will see what it is," I answered, leading the way into the library.

There I lifted the lid slightly to take a peep, and then with a cry of joy, opened it wide. That particular shoe-box had brought me an Actias Luna, newly emerged, and as yet unable to fly. I held down my finger, it climbed on, and was lifted to the light.

"Ain't it the prettiest thing?" asked the woman, with stars sparkling in her dark eyes. "Did you ever see whiter white?"

Together we studied that moth. Clinging to my finger, the living creature was of such delicate beauty as to impoverish my stock of adjectives at the beginning. Its big, pursy body was covered with long, furry scales of the purest white imaginable. The wings were of an exquisite light green colour; the front pair having a heavy costa of light purple that reached across the back of the head: the back pair ended in long artistic `trailers,' faintly edged with light yellow. The front wing had an oval transparent mark close the costa, attached to it with a purple line, and the back had circles of the same. These decorations were bordered with lines of white, black, and red. At the bases of the wings were long, snowy silken hairs; the legs were purple, and the antennae resembled small, tan-coloured ferns. That is the best I can do at description. A living moth must be seen to form a realizing sense of its shape and delicacy of colour. Luna is our only large moth having trailers, and these are much longer in proportion to size and of more graceful curves than our trailed butterflies.

The moth's wings were fully expanded, and it was beginning to exercise, so a camera was set up hastily, and several pictures of it secured. The woman helped me through the entire process, and in talking with her, I learned that she was Mrs. McCollum, from a village a mile and a half north of ours; that when she reached home she would have walked three miles to make the trip; and all her neighbours had advised her not to come, but she "had a feeling that she would like to."

"Are you sorry?" I asked.

"Am I sorry!" she cried. "Why I never had a better time in my life, and I can teach the children what you have told me. I'll bring you everything I can get my fingers on that you can use, and send for you when I find bird nests.'

Mrs. McCollum has kept that promise faithfully. Again and again she trudged those three miles, bringing me small specimens of many species or to let me know that she had found a nest.

A big oak tree in Mrs. McCollum's yard explained the presence of a Luna there, as the caterpillars of this specie greatly prefer these leaves. Because the oak is of such slow growth it is seldom planted around residences for ornamental purposes; but is to be found most frequently in the forest. For this reason Luna as a rule is a moth of the deep wood, and so is seldom seen close a residence, making people believe it quite rare. As a matter of fact, it is as numerous where the trees its caterpillars frequent are to be found, as any other moth in its natural location. Because it is of the forest, the brightest light there is to attract it is the glare of the moon as it is reflected on the face of a murky pool, or on the breast of the stream rippling its way through impassable thickets. There must be a self-satisfied smile on the face of the man in the moon, in whose honour these delicate creatures are named, when on fragile wing they hover above his mirrored reflection; for of all the beauties of a June night in the forest, these moths are most truly his.

In August of the same year, while driving on a corduroy road in Michigan, I espied a Luna moth on the trunk of a walnut tree close the road. The cold damp location must account for this late emergence; for subsequent events proved that others of the family were as slow in appearing. A storm of protest arose, when I stopped the carriage and started to enter the swamp. The remaining occupants put in their time telling blood-curdling experiences with `massaugers,' that infested those marshes; and while I bent grasses and cattails to make the best footing as I worked my way toward the moth, I could hear a mixed chorus "brought up thirteen in the dredge at the cement factory the other day," "killed nine in a hayfield below the cemetery," "saw a buster crossing the road before me, and my horse almost plunged into the swamp," "died of a bite from one that struck him while fixing a loose board in his front walk."

I am dreadfully afraid of snakes, and when it seemed I could not force myself to take another step, and I was clinging to a button bush while the water arose above my low shoes, the moth lowered its wings flat against the bark. From the size of the abdomen I could see that it was a female heavily weighted with eggs. Possibly she had mated the previous night, and if I could secure her, Luna life history would be mine.

So I set my teeth and advanced. My shoes were spoiled, and my skirts bedraggled, but I captured the moth and saw no indication of snakes. Soon after she was placed in a big pasteboard box and began dotting eggs in straight lines over the interior. They were white but changed colour as the caterpillars approached time to hatch. The little yellow-green creatures, nearly a quarter of an inch long, with a black line across the head, emerged in about sixteen days, and fed with most satisfaction on oak, but they would take hickory, walnut or willow leaves also. When the weather is cold the young develop slower, and I have had the egg period stretched to three weeks at times. Every few days the young caterpillars cast their skins and emerged in brighter colour and larger in size. It is usually supposed they mature in four moults, and many of them do, but some cast a fifth skin before transforming. When between seven and eight weeks of age, they were three inches long, and of strong blue-green colour. Most of them had tubercles of yellow, tipped with blue, and some had red.

They spun a leaf-cover cocoon, much the size and shape of that of Polyphemus, but whiter, very thin, with no inner case, and against some solid surface whenever possible. Fearing I might not handle them rightly, and lose some when ready to spin, I put half on our walnut tree so they could weave their cocoons according to characteristics.

They are fine, large, gaudy caterpillars. The handsomest one I ever saw I found among some gifts offered by Molly-Cotton for the celebration of my birthday. It had finished feeding, soon pupated in a sand pail and the following spring a big female emerged that attracted several males and they posed on a walnut trunk for beautiful studies.

Once under the oak trees of a summer resort, Miss Katherine Howell, of Philadelphia, intercepted a Luna caterpillar in the preliminary race before pupation and brought it to me. We offered young oak leaves, but they were refused, so it went before the camera. Behind the hotel I found an empty hominy can in which it soon began spinning, but it seemed to be difficult to fasten the threads to the tin, so a piece of board was cut and firmly wedged inside. The caterpillar clung to this and in the darkness of the can spun the largest and handsomest Luna winter quarters of all my experience.

Luna hunters can secure material from which to learn this exquisite creature of night, by searching for the moths on the trunks of oak, walnut, hickory, birch or willow, during the month of June. The moths emerge on the ground, and climb these trees to unfold and harden their wings. The females usually remain where they are, and the males are attracted to them. If undisturbed they do not fly until after mating and egg depositing are accomplished. The males take wing as soon as dusk of the first night arrives, after their wings are matured. They usually find the females by ten o'clock or midnight, and remain with them until morning. I have found mated pairs as late as ten o'clock in the forenoon.

The moths do not eat, and after the affairs of life are accomplished, they remain in the densest shade they can find for a few days, and fly at night, ending their life period in from three days to a week. Few of these gaudily painted ones have the chance to die naturally, for both birds and squirrels prey upon them, tearing away the delicate wings, and feasting on the big pulpy bodies.

White eggs on the upper side of leaves of the trees mentioned are a sign of Luna caterpillars in deep woods, and full-grown larvae can be found on these trees in August. By breaking off a twig on which they are feeding, carrying them carefully, placing them in a box where they cannot be preyed upon by flies and parasites, and keeping a liberal supply of fresh damp leaves, they will finish the feeding days, and weave their cocoons.

Or the cocoons frequently can be found already spun among the leaves, by nutting parties later in the fall. There is small question if Luna pupae be alive, for on touching the cocoons they squirm and twist so vigorously that they can be heard plainly. There is so little difference in the size of male and female Lunas, that I am not sure of telling them apart in the cocoon, as I am certain I can Cecropia.

Cocoon gathering in the fall is one of the most delightful occupations imaginable. When flowers are gone; when birds have migrated; when brilliant foliage piles knee deep underfoot; during those last few days of summer, zest can be added to a ramble by a search for cocoons. Carrying them home with extreme care not to jar or dent them, they are placed in the conservatory among the flowers. They hang from cacti spines and over thorns on the big century plant and lemon tree. When sprinkling, the hose is turned on them, as they would take the rain outside. Usually they are placed in the coolest spots, where ventilation is good.

There is no harm whatever in taking them if the work is carefully and judiciously done. With you they are safe. Outside they have precarious chance for existence, for they are constantly sought by hungry squirrels and field mice, while the sharp eyes and sharper beaks of jays, and crows, are for ever searching for them. The only danger is in keeping them too warm, and so causing their emergence before they can be placed out safely at night, after you have made yourself acquainted with Luna history.

If they are kept cool enough that they do not emerge until May or June, then you have one of the most exquisite treats nature has in store for you, in watching the damp spot spread on the top of the cocoon where an acid is ejected that cuts and softens the tough fibre, and allows the moth to come pushing through in the full glory of its gorgeous birth. Nowhere in nature can you find such delicate and daintily shaded markings or colours so brilliant and fresh as on the wings of these creatures of night.

After you have learned the markings and colours, and secured pictures if you desire, and they begin to exhibit a restlessness, as soon as it is dusk, release them. They are as well prepared for all life has for them as if they had emerged in the woods. The chances are that they are surer of life at your hands than they would have been if left afield, provided you keep them cool enough that they do not emerge too soon. If you want to photograph them, do it when the wings are fully developed, but before they have flown. They need not be handled; their wings are unbroken; their down covering in place to the last scale; their colours never so brilliant; their markings the plainest they ever will be; their big pursy bodies full of life; and they will climb with perfect confidence on any stick, twig, or limb held before them. Reproductions of them are even more beautiful than those of birds. By all means photograph them out of doors on a twig or leaf that their caterpillars will eat. Moths strengthen and dry very quickly outside in the warm crisp air of May or June, so it is necessary to have some one beside you with a spread net covering them, in case they want to fly before you are ready to make an exposure. In painting this moth the colours always should be copied from a living specimen as soon as it is dry. No other moth of my acquaintance fades so rapidly.

Repeatedly I am asked which I think the most beautiful of these big night moths. I do not know. All of them are indescribably attractive. Whether a pale green moth with purple markings is lovelier than a light yellow moth with heliotrope decorations; or a tan and brown one with pink lines, is a difficult thing to determine. When their descriptions are mastered, and the colour combinations understood, I fancy each person will find the one bearing most of his favourite colour the loveliest. It may be that on account of its artistically cut and coloured trailers, Luna has a touch of grace above any.


Gene Stratton-Porter

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