LUNA MOTHS ARE ON THE WING
By Arthur V. Evans
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.
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.
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