The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 4/27/09
On March 13th Linda Mills and her granddaughter, Brayden, brought a female luna moth to show us. They had observed luna moths mating, but the next morning found the female on the ground with a damaged wing. Linda lifted the moth and placed her carefully in a shoe box where she began laying a hundred or more eggs. When employee Lilly Anderson-Messec held the luna moth in her palm, she called out with excitement, “Look, she is laying eggs on my hand!” Linda and Brayden graciously shared the eggs with us.
The luna moth, had she been able to fly, would have laid her eggs on sweetgum, hickory, walnut or birch leaves and the life cycle of this gorgeous moth would have taken place high in a tree, unnoticed by people. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch the proceedings up close.
The eggs began to hatch on March 23rd. I placed a dry paper towel over a damp one in the bottom of a plastic shoe box. Then I gathered a tip branch of young sweetgum leaves and brushed the tiny green caterpillars onto the leaves with a small paintbrush and then closed the lid.
I provided fresh leaves daily, after first installing clean paper towels. Caterpillars generally cling to the old leaves, so I positioned the old leaves over the new ones and let the caterpillars move on their own to the fresh leaves. Every so often I had to move a wayward caterpillar back onto the green leaves.
The caterpillars grew quickly, eating lots of sweetgum and produced more and more caterpillar frass (a nice word for caterpillar poop). I gave several caterpillars to teachers and other curious individuals to raise, keeping five for myself. By April 24th, each caterpillar had spun a cocoon pulling a leaf around it, where it will transform into a graceful, pale green luna moth, sometimes called the “Empress of the Night.”
I have learned from past experience to release the moths at night. Once I released a newly emerged luna moth during the morning. It flew into the air and was immediately captured and eaten by a red-bellied woodpecker!