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Chapter 7

King of the Hollyhocks: Protoparce Celeus


Protoparce Celeus was the companion of Deilephila Lineata in the country garden where I first studied Nature. Why I was taught that Lineata was a bird, and Celeus a moth, it is difficult to understand, for they appear very similar when poising before flowers. They visit the same blooms, and vary but little in size. The distinction that must have made the difference was that while Lineata kept company with the hummingbirds and fed all day, Celeus came forth at dusk, and flew in the evening and at night. But that did not conclusively prove it a moth, for nighthawks and whip-poor-wills did the same; yet unquestionably they were birds.

Anyway, I always knew Celeus was a moth, and that every big, green caterpillar killed on the tomato vines meant one less of its kind among the flowers. I never saw one of these moths close a tomato or potato vine, a jimson weed or ground cherry, but all my life I have seen their eggs on these plants, first of a pale green closely resembling the under side of the leaves, and if they had been laid some time, a yellow colour. The eggs are not dotted along in lines, or closely placed, but are deposited singly, or by twos, at least very sparsely.

The little caterpillars emerge in about a week, and then comes the process of eating until they grow into the large, green tomato or tobacco worms that all of us have seen. When hatched the caterpillars are green, and have grey caudal horns similar to Lineata. After eating for four or five days, they cast their skins. This process is repeated three or four times, when the full-grown caterpillars are over four inches long, exactly the colour of a green tomato, with pale blue and yellow markings of beautiful shades, the horns blue-black; and appearing sharp enough to inflict a severe wound.

Like all sphinx caterpillars Celeus is perfectly harmless; but this horn, in connexion with the habit the creatures have of clinging to the vines with the back feet, raising the head and striking from side to side, makes people very sure they can bite or sting, or inflict some serious hurt. So very vigorous are they in self-defence when disturbed, that robins and cuckoos are the only birds I ever have seen brave enough to pick them until the caterpillars loosen their hold and drop to the ground, where they are eaten with evident relish.

One cuckoo of my experience that nested in an old orchard, adjoining a potato patch, frequently went there caterpillar-hunting, and played havoc with one wherever found. The shy, deep wood habits of the cuckoo prevent it from coming close houses and into gardens, but robins will take these big caterpillars from tomato vines. However, they go about it rather gingerly, and the work of reducing one to non-resistance does not seem to be at all coveted. Most people exhibit symptoms of convulsions at sight of one. Yet it is a matter of education. I have seen women kiss and fondle cats and dogs, one snap from which would result in disfiguration or horrible death, and seem not to be able to get enough of them. But they were quite equal to a genuine faint if contact were suggested with a perfectly harmless caterpillar, a creature lacking all means of defence, save this demonstration of throwing the head.

When full-fed the caterpillars enter the earth to pupate, and on the fifteenth of October, 1906, only the day before I began this chapter, the Deacon, in digging worms for a fishing trip to the river, found a pupa case a yard from the tomato vines, and six inches below the surface. He came to my desk, carrying on a spade a ball of damp earth larger than a quart bowl. With all care we broke this as nearly in halves as possible and found in the centre a firm, oval hole, the size and shape of a hen's egg, and in the opening a fine fresh pupa case.

It was a beautiful red-brown in colour, long and slenderer than a number of others in my box of sand, and had a long tongue case turned under and fastened to the pupa between the wing shields. The sides of the abdomen were pitted; the shape of the head, and the eyes showed through the case, the wing shields were plainly indicated, and the abdominal shield was in round sections so that the pupa could twist from side to sid when touched, proving that the developing moth inside was very much alive and in fine condition.

There were no traces of the cast skin. The caterpillar had been so strong and had pushed so hard against the surrounding earth that the direction from which it had entered was lost. The soil was packed and crowded firmly for such a distance that this large ball was forced together. Trembling with eagerness I hurriedly set up a camera. This phase of moth life often has been described, but I never before heard of any one having been able to reproduce it, so my luck was glorious. A careful study of this ball of earth, the opening in which the case lies, and the pupa, with its blunt head and elaborate tongue shield, will convince any one that when ready to emerge these moths must bore the six inches to the surface with the point of the abdomen, and there burst the case, cling to the first twig and develop and harden the wings. The abdominal point is sharp, surprisingly strong, and the rings of the segments enable it to turn in all directions, while the earth is mellow and moist with spring rains. To force a way head first would be impossible on account of the delicate tongue shield, and for the moth to emerge underground and dig to the surface without displacing a feather of down, either before or after wing expansion, is unthinkable. Yet I always had been in doubt as to precisely how the exit of a pupa case moth took place, until I actually saw the earth move and the sharp abdominal point appear while working in my garden.

Living pupae can be had in the fall, by turning a few shovels of soil close vegetables in any country garden. In the mellow mould, among cabbages and tomato vines, around old log cabins close the Limberlost swamp, they are numerous, and the emerging moths haunt the sweet old-fashioned flowers.

The moth named Celeus, after a king of Eleusis, certainly has kingly qualities to justify the appellation. The colouring is all grey, black, brown, white and yellow, and the combinations are most artistic. It is a relative of Lineata. It flies and feeds by day, has nearly the same length of life, and is much the same in shape.

The head is small and sharp, eyes very much larger than Lineata, and tongue nearly four inches in length. The antennae are not clubbed, but long and hairlike. It has the broad shoulders, the long wings, and the same shape of abdomen. The wings, front and back, are so mottled, lined, and touched with grey, black, brown and white, as to be almost past definite description. The back wings have the black and white markings more clearly defined. The head meets the thorax with a black band. The back is covered with long, grey down, and joins the abdomen, with a band of black about a quarter of an inch wide, and then a white one of equal width. The abdomen is the gaudiest part of the moth. In general it is a soft grey. It is crossed by five narrow white lines the length of the abdomen, and a narrow black one down the middle. Along each side runs a band of white. On this are placed four large yellow spots each circled by a band of black that joins the black band of the spot next to it. The legs and under side of the abdomen and wings are a light grey-tan, with the wing markings showing faintly, and the abdomen below is decorated with two small black dots.

My first Celeus, a very large and beautiful one, was brought to me by Mr. Wallace Hardison, who has been an interested helper with this book. The moth had a wing sweep of fully five and a half inches, and its markings were unusually bright and strong. No other Celeus quite so big and beautiful ever has come to my notice. From four and a half to five inches is the average size.

There was something the matter with this moth. Not a scale of down seemed to be missing, but it was torpid and would not fly. Possibly it had been stung by some parasite before taking flight at all, for it was very fresh. I just had returned from a trip north, and there were some large pieces of birch bark lying on the table on which the moth had been placed. It climbed on one of these, and clung there, so I set up the bark, and made a time exposure. It felt so badly it did not even close them when I took a brush and spread its wings full width. Soon after it became motionless. I had begun photographing moths recently; it was one of my very first, and no thought of using it for natural history purposes occurred at the time. I merely made what I considered a beautiful likeness, and this was so appreciated whenever shown, that I went further and painted it in water colours.

Since moth pictures have accumulated, and moth history has engrossed me with its intense interest, I have been very careful in making studies to give each one its proper environment when placing it before my camera. Of all the flowers in our garden, Celeus prefers the hollyhocks. At least it comes to them oftenest and remains at them longest. But it moves continually and flies so late that a picture of it has been a task. After years of fruitless effort, I made one passable snapshot early in July, while the light was sufficiently strong that a printable picture could be had by intensifying the plate, and one good time exposure as a Celeus, with half-folded wings, clambered over a hollyhock, possibly hunting a spot on which to deposit an egg or two. The hollyhock painting of this chapter is from this study. The flowers were easy but it required a second trial to do justice to the complicated markings of the moth.

This evening lover and strong flyer, with its swallow-like sweep of wing, comes into the colour schemes of nature with the otter, that at rare times thrusts a sleek grey head from the river, with the grey-brown cotton-tails that bound across the stubble, and the coots that herald dawn in the marshes. Exactly the shades, and almost the markings ofits wings can be found on very old rail fences. This lint shows lighter colour, and even grey when used in the house building of wasps and orioles, but I know places in the country where I could carve an almost perfectly shaded Celeus wing from a weather- beaten old snake fence rail.

Celeus visits many flowers, almost all of the trumpet-shaped ones, in fact, but if I were an artist I scarcely would think it right to paint a hollyhock without putting King Celeus somewhere in the picture, poised on his throne of air before a perfect bloom as he feasts on pollen and honey. The holly-hock is a kingly flower, with its regally lifted heads of bright bloom, and that the king of moths should show his preference for it seems eminently fitting, so we of the Cabin named him King of the Hollyhocks.


Gene Stratton-Porter

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