Though butterflies were my thing growing up, once I was exposed to the giant silk moths I fell in love. Living in Rhode Island, we have Hyalophora cecropia, Actias luna, Antheraea polyphemus, Callosamia promethea and Automeris io. Though these species are spectacular it wasn’t until I became exposed to the tropical species where the wow factor really started.
I was aware of many of these giants, mostly through the specimen catalogs of The Butterfly Company from Far Rockaway, New York in the 1970s. I can still remember the day that their latest color catalog showed up, and displayed for the first time for me was the species covered in this blog. When I saw this pair of moths I was spell-bound, not only because of the size and long tails of the male but the coloration as well.
As I learned more about this moth, I started to realize how every aspect of its life is beautiful. From egg to adult, all life stages are amazing. Though I have seen them alive in butterfly exhibits, it was Paul Villiard’s book “Moths and How to Rear Them” where I first learned about their life cycle. Though the pictures in this timeless book are in black and white, they were still amazing to look at.
Then, in 2010, I bought the full color book “Saturniidae of the World” by Rudolph E.J. Lampe. This is without a doubt the best book every created on giant silk moths. In full color, beautiful pictures show every aspect of over 300 moths’ life cycles, going as far as showing every instar of the caterpillar. I was able to finally see the entire life cycle of Argema mittrei in full color. If you can get this book I highly recommend it!
This species was discovered in 1847 and can only be found in southern Madagascar. Though all of the species in the Argema genus are beautiful, it is mittrei that really stands out. The male moths can have a seven to eight inch wingspan with a length of ten to twelve inches from top to bottom. Females tend to be wider with heavier wings, but with much shorter tails.
The eggs of mittrei are very large, round and flattened. They can have some muddy-brown mottlings and according to Paul Villiard, have a “pebbled surface.” When they hatch, the first instar caterpillar is quite large already and has a reddish “saddle” on its back. This disappears when molting into the second instar. During the fifth and final instar, the caterpillars are huge, approaching six inches. The body is deeply segmented and the color is a translucent green. The bands of the segments are yellowish. The cocoon is whitish gray in color with many holes throughout. In fact, you can see the pupa within. I wonder if this makes them easy targets for predators.
According to Paul Villiard, information on accepted foodplants were pretty much unknown at the time he raised them. After experimenting with two dozen caterpillars on a wide variety of possible plants, he ended up with one lone caterpillar that survived to adulthood feeding on poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron). As more people experimented, more foodplants were found to be acceptable. The following list is from the book “A Guide to the Breeding of Tropical Silk Moths” by Frank Meister.
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa), European Smoketree (Cotinus coggygria), Cider Gum (Eucalyptus gunnii), California Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium), Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Mimosa (Mimosa), Spanish Oak (Quercus x hispanica), Flameleaf Sumac (Schmaltzia copallinum), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), Peruvian Peppertree (Schinus molle), Brazilian Peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia), Atlantic Poison Oak (Toxicodendron pubescens).
It’s a shame that you can’t legally raise these in the United States without a permit. Despite the fact that they would never survive the winters on the east coast and could never be a agricultural pest to poison ivy, this is one of hundreds of species that are not available legally. It is great though that you can see them occasionally at live butterfly exhibits across the United States.
Interestingly, one of the largest sellers of mothballs, Enoz, uses an image of Argema mittrei on their packaging. Why they would use an image of such a spectacular moth for their product is a mystery. This is exactly the type of moth you would not use mothballs on.
Look for more editions of this series covering more of these spectacular creatures in the very near future.