in times of stress
i become owl…
somnolent and slow in day,
crouched in hayloft watching
motes of dust float in beams of light
seeping through cracks.
i breathe scent of dried grass and warm animals.
my silent wings beat against the boards
and lift me through
the gable end-vent
out into the thick night.
i seek everywhere, mind dilated for meager light
flap low over ditches and fields
dry weeds brushing
duck dark trunks and twigs
dive for a closer look
and then veer blind from headlights of passing cars.
tiny and soundless
escapes my grasp.
Natural history lesson of the day in Point Peter, Georgia.
(Editorial note: This is why no one invites me to parties. I’ll be inspired by an adult beverage and someone’s innocuous, casual remark about nature, and will start waxing poetic and scientific about some wild plant, tree, or critter… and all around me, eyes will glaze over and bodies fall to the floor, comatose.)
I found this female Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis) on my porch this morning. RWMs are members of the giant silkworm moth family, Saturniidae. The adults are nocturnal flyers; they have rudimentary, undeveloped mouthparts and do not feed at all. These beautiful, ephemeral insects live only a week or two as adults. Their sole adult-stage function is reproduction. Walnut moths can have the widest wingspan of any of the U.S. Saturniids—up to 6.1 inches across. This one, even slightly battered by the elements, has a 5-inch wingspan, and the furry yellow and orange body is the length and diameter of my thumb.
This female moth was probably attracted to my porch light last night. I moved her to a more sheltered spot to keep birds from seeing her as lunch. I hope she has mated and has or will lay eggs on one of the pecan trees in my yard in the next night or two. This moth’s wing colors are rather faded (although the orange on her body and legs is still bright), which makes me think she is near the natural end of her adult lifespan. When they’ve just emerged from pupation, they are brilliantly colored. Another nature-nerd fact I learned: Moths have actual pigment in their scales to give them color, while butterfly scales are unpigmented but prismatic—like prisms, mirrors, or glass crystals—and their color comes only from the reflection and refraction of light on the scales. Night-flying Saturniid moths are sluggish by day, and they seem to be genetically programmed for survival by resting on the undersides of leaves during the daylight hours, flying at dusk to seek mates. But this one is still pretty active and peppy when touched and encouraged to crawl onto my hand. Even with a damaged right forewing, she should still be able to fly to the trees.
Yes, their fuzzy orange legs and spiny feet feel creepy to touch, but the insect is harmless, incapable of biting or stinging. Unless you’re simply horrified by insects in general, you can appreciate the incredible beauty and detail and size of these moths with a close inspection from all angles. My aversion to prickly bug-feet gives way to the sheer fascination of the giant moth’s appearance and life cycle.
The really “active” stage of the royal walnut moth’s existence is its caterpillar stage. The two-millimeter oval yellow eggs, laid in small clusters on the undersides of host-tree leaves (walnut, hickory, pecan, sweetgum, persimmon, and sumac) hatch into caterpillars that, in the course of about six weeks of growth (nonstop leaf-eating), can reach 6” in length. These formidable larvae are usually bright green, sometimes brown, with numerous black tubercules (bumps) along the length of the body and red “horns” on the head-end that deter predators by intimidation. The caterpillar’s common name is Hickory Horned Devil, and it’s apt. They are non-stinging and not venomous, but look absolutely terrifying.
The fact that this big furry moth is on my hand in some of my photos might surprise you if you’ve read about my fear of spiders and cockroaches. It’s only certain bugs that freak me out to the point of screaming like a little girl. Butterflies, moths, and beetles don’t bother me, and I find all kinds of insects fascinating. Some of them I’d rather not touch or have in my house, thank you. I can literally handle the moth, but I’d wet my pants if a six-inch long, fat, spiny caterpillar fell on me or I had to pick one up. Anyway, the fully mature caterpillars crawl to the ground beneath their food-source trees and burrow down to pupate in earthen cells, where they metamorphose over the fall and winter months to emerge as adult moths next summer.
How do I know it’s a female? In Saturniids, as in many moth species, the antennae and overall size are giveaways. To find mates, the females secrete a powerful pheromone that attracts males from long distances. The males have big, very feathery-looking antennae to pick up these seductive chemical signals. The females’ antennae are much narrower and less feathery. Females are typically larger than males. At rest, the antennae lie close to the head, so I didn’t get her antennae in any of my photos. More visible differences between a moth and a butterfly: both sexes of butterfly typically have thin, club-shaped antennae, in contrast to the moth’s feather-like sensory organs. And at rest, butterflies usually hold their wings erect and together over the back, while moths’ wings spread out to their sides.
If you’re still feigning interest and haven’t dozed off, here is one more link to read more about the Royal Walnut Moth… and please do a Google search for Saturniid moth and see the photo array from all over the internet that pops up. This whole family of moths is amazing, huge, and beautiful, and many are native to the Southeastern U.S.’s mixed hardwood forests. I have been reading about them since I was about 13 years old (a visiting physics professor and backyard naturalist from upstate New York stayed with my family for several days back in 1976 or ’77, and in the course of an afternoon taught me enough about the Saturniids to trigger my lifelong fascination), and have collected several cocoons from species that spin cocoons above ground, so that I could watch them emerge as moths and then release them.
In 1999, I bought a wonderful, gloriously illustrated coffee-table book titled Wings of Paradise: The Great Saturniid Moths by Dr. John Cody. Cody—a retired psychiatrist, of all things—is also a naturalist and painter known as “the Audubon of Moths.” He’s gotta be in his 90s now, but has traveled all over the world studying and painting this family of moths. I have, framed in my home, several limited edition prints of his moth paintings that I bought after discovering his work in the mid-1980s. His book was designed by my favorite book designer, Richard Hendel, now retired from University of North Carolina Press and still freelancing. I had the pleasure of “meeting” Hendel by email, and of typesetting or composing several of his book designs for other university presses during my tenure at GCI. Here’s a link to Wings of Paradise.
 Cody, John. Wings of Paradise: The Great Saturniid Moths. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996 (isbn 0-8078-2286-8).
Postscript: A bit over an hour after I found Ms. Royal Walnut Moth, took her photographs, and wrote this essay, I went back outside and found dismembered wings, lying on the ground about eight feet from where I’d placed her in a shrub. Some greedy bird had a McMoth combo at the drive-thru… er, fly-thru. A little saddening to my sentimental human feelings, yeah… but this is a natural death for these moths. They don’t often fly to lights until after they have mated and laid eggs, at which time I suppose their work is done and their survival instinct switches off. So I hope this gal did her thing earlier and was on her way out. Better to be a quick bird meal than to die slowly while the metabolism ticks down and fails, since the adult moth can’t feed to renew itself. I often find discarded wings in my yard, and near artificial lights even in busy commercial areas during the summer. Do other people notice these scattered and fading remnants of beauty, or is my brain just attuned to picking out nature’s small details in unexpected places? I am glad I got to see her alive and touch her and memorialize her with a few amateurish camera-phone snapshots, and without damaging her delicate structure, before a bird got her. It’s sobering to think about all the millions of battles for survival and species continuation and circles of life that turn, all around us, each and every day, that we’re mostly unaware are occurring.
Fly free, Royal Walnut Lady.