Nature Talks: Moths are electrifying creatures
A kind reader of this column, Elizabeth in Alton, sent me an image of a moth and asked if I knew what it was. I recognized the unique-looking moth immediately as one I had seen before. I recalled having taken a picture of it and even identified it, but I could not recall what the name of the moth was. Looking it up was easy enough. What did surprise me was that not even an hour after reading Elizabeth’s email I found one sitting on the door of my porch.
The moth is around an inch long and is pale yellow with pale pink accents. Its most distinguishing feature of all is its fuzzy darker yellow mop head. The crazy looking fellow is a Dryocampa rubicunda, otherwise known as a rosy maple moth (see picture), according to a couple Internet sources, bugguide.net and butterfliesandmoths.org. Other pictures show two dark pink fuzzy horns sticking out from its head, although those have never been immediately evident in the ones I have seen.
A chat room on bugguide.net (wow, there are bug chat rooms, who knew?) had some very interesting commentary. One thing that seemed common, and was my and Elizabeth’s experience as well, is that the moth — whose moppy hairdo makes him look like he should be more of a rockin’ sort of fellow — often sits in one spot for a long time, days even. Elizabeth said hers had been sitting on their door in Alton for two days and the one that I discovered on our porch door stayed there for at least 36 hours.
The other comment in the chat room was from one person who picked one of the moths up and it “started vibrating and buzzing on my right pinky, it made it go numb for a second … it felt like a shock [from] touching an electric fence for less than a second.” I’ve accidentally touched an electric fence hundreds of times and lived, but given that comment I don’t think I will pick one of these moths up. I don’t recommend tasting it either; many bright or oddly colored bugs are either poisonous or pretending to be or taste like they are.
Another moth I am always intrigued by when I see it is the Tolype moth (pictured). This very furry moth can run from white to gray; the ones I have seen are almost completely white. Like the rosy maple moth, the Tolype has a mophead. It also has two furry horns and a horn-like apparatus sticking out from the middle of its back.
Of course, the most exciting moth sighting of all is the luna moth (Actias luna). This lime green moth with eyespots and long coattails is mammoth-sized with a wingspan averaging almost five inches. Although they fly at night making them not commonly seen, they really aren’t uncommon either; I have witnessed several here at our farm and several of my Facebook friends have posted pictures of them over the years.
The most peculiar luna moth sighting I’ve had was on Squam Lake. We had docked for a picnic on a small island. While sitting on some boulders near the dock, I noticed something kept moving in the water in exactly the same spot just a few yards offshore. We had to investigate — it was a luna moth in the water. It did not seem to want to be rescued and would even sort of dive under the water. But rescue it I must; I did finally capture it and put it on shore.
According to several Internet websites, the adult luna moth is just a mating machine. Not only do they not eat once they emerge from the cocoon, they don’t even have mouth parts and couldn’t eat if they wanted to. Their sole purpose is to mate. Once their wings have dried and filled with blood, they fly off to do just that. The female lays eggs apparently only on black walnut leaves, and the cycle starts again.
Coincidentally, shortly before I received Elizabeth’s email, I received in good old snail mail an absolutely beautiful printed piece from The Xerces Society. Their mission, stated at the bottom of their lovely flier covered with illustrations of bees and bugs and moths, is “Protecting wildlife through conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.” Located in Portland, Ore., they are named for a blue butterfly, “the first butterfly in the United States known to have become extinct as a result of human activity.”
This reminds me of the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), the official state butterfly of New Hampshire since 1992, which is considered “imperiled” and is found in small colonies in New Hampshire, according to nh.gov. Attempts are being made to retain habitat conducive to the Karner blue such as N.H. Fish and Game’s “Nongame Program,” which conducted a recent controlled burn in the Concord Pine Barrens (see wildlife.state.nh.us). It’s nice to know that even invertebrates are being watched over by someone!
Lastly, there is one other website I would call your attention to if you happen across a strange-looking moth you want to identify: the North American Moth Photographers Group at the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University (mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu). They have moths covered.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.