By Arthur V. Evans

The luna moth, Actias luna (Linnaeus). Although the luna moth is native to North America, most of its relatives live in Asia.

Last night, while black lighting for beetles on a cool and still spring night in the Bull Run Mountains in northern Virginia, I was treated to an incredible display of luna moths, Actias luna (Linnaeus). Within an hour of turning on the lights, a baker’s dozen of these marvelously green and ornately tailed creatures had settled on the sheet and nearby tree trunks. Such a sight made me feel quite giddy and brought back a flood of memories of some of my earliest encounters with other spectacular insects as a young naturalist.

The first luna moth that I ever saw in Virginia flew through an unscreened upstairs window. It looked like a soft, green bat as it circled the light at the top of the stairs. It was all that I could do to keep it from being gobbled up by our cats!

They range throughout the hardwood forests of eastern North America. Luna moths were long known to naturalists by the time they were described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The earliest known reference to luna moths in North America was in a note published James Petiver 1700, who had based his comments on a specimen collected in Maryland.

Like other moths and butterflies, the wings of luna moths are covered with scales that make up their colors and patterns.

Luna moths typically emerge from their cocoons in the morning. Powerful fliers, they are often attracted to porch lights and well-lit storefronts. There is only one generation produced in the northern parts of its range and two or three generations are produced in the south. Moths emerging in spring are bright green or blue-green with prominent reddish-purple margins on the outer forewings, while summer broods tend to be more yellow over all with yellowish outer wing margins.

Mating takes place after midnight. Pairs of luna moths sometimes remain coupled until the following evening. Eggs are laid singly or in small batches on upper and lower surfaces of leaves and hatch in about a week. The ravenous and solitary caterpillars feed on the leaves of a wide range of hardwoods, including birch, hickory, walnut, persimmon, and sweetgum. Different populations of luna caterpillars show regional preferences for host plants.

The feathery, or pectinate antennae of the male luna moth are covered with sensory pits that enable to them to detect just a few molecules of the pheromones released by receptive female moths.

Only when they are ready to pupate do the mature caterpillars wander away from the food plant. Cocoons are spun on the ground among the leaf litter at the base of the host tree. Each cocoon consists of a single layer of thin and papery silk that incorporates one or more leaves.

Sightings of the luna moth’s spring brood will still be possible over the next few weeks. Look for them at lights near wooded areas and you just might be treated to a glimpse of one of North America’s most spectacular animal species.

© 2010, A.V. Evans

10 Responses to “LUNA MOTHS ARE ON THE WING”

  1. I lived in Houston, Texas for 18 years and one of the local nature centers had a “moth garden” and raised Luna and Polyphemus moths, and gave out cocoons during pertinent youth programming at their site.

    This inspired my children to grow butterfly gardens, and become sensitive to the habitat needs of moths, as well.

    Such amazing creatures, thanks for the more local information!

  2. I’ve noticed lunas seem to show up at my blacklight sheets late – early a.m. after the beetles have stopped coming. The flutter of their wings against the sheet and ground as they bounce around in the otherwise deadstill night is a lovely sound.

  3. I was in my early 20s the first time I saw a luna moth. It had rained hard the previous night, and this particular moth must have sought refuge near my apartment. I left for work that morning to find an enormous green moth on the door. Having grown up in the western US, I had never seen such a large moth! I quickly dug into my copy of Butterflies and Moths of Missouri and read up on the luna moth. It left quite an impression.

  4. Inspiring photos! Thanks for including the large files, since they make beautiful desktop wallpaper. The Luna image also has a very romantic connotation.

  5. Paige Young Says:

    I use to teach forth grade in Missouri and when I was grading papers, a Luna Moth was on the window, I took pictures and showed my class the following day, they were amazed! We studied them for the next few weeks. Every time I grade papers now in Michigan, I look at the window and remember the Luna Moth.How can one creature have so much beauty?

  6. I live in CT. and just discovered this moth on our garage door yesterday. They are just gorgeous. Almost alien like. We have never seen one before. We left him alone and he stayed in the same spot all day. Unfortunately, something else thought he was pretty great as well. This morning he was found under our truck and missing a wing. He is till alive and we moved him under a dense bush. We will keep him monitored, but it doesn’t look good.

  7. I live in upstate NY and was at a friend’s cottage on Lake George for Memorial Day weekend when I saw the first Luna Moth I had ever seen in 68 years of life. I do a lot of hiking and have for many years but have never seen such fascinating creature as this. The images on the wings looked like they were hand painted! I’m glad I had the camera to show the grandkids.

  8. Mary Burchett Says:

    I teach a 4 year old preschool class in Chesterfield County, Virginia. I was surprised to see this beautiful creature attached to our brick building, right below a security light during the daytime, for 2 days now. What an impression he made on the children.

  9. I found your blog post yesterday while googling “Luna moths”. Yesterday as I entered our back gate (in the city) a large, gorgeous moth was on the fence. Light blue-green aqua-ish wings with a distinctly purple edge on the top of the wing. Gorgeous and perfect. It looked like velvet. So beautiful! I was thrilled to be treated to such a surprise and this exquisite moth…God creation is a wonder to behold.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: