Fun with Giant Silk Moths! A 2-Part Summer Course

This fun, 2-part course concludes with a presentation at the Highlands Center for Natural History in Prescott, Arizona.

With Vicky Oldham,

Course Part 1: Raising Giant Silk Moths Indoors, Egg to Adult

Raising giant silk moths indoors is not only educational — it’s fun!  Participate in the miracle of metamorphosis in a completely new way.  Watch development proceed from a tiny egg to a giant, butterfly-like moth as big as your hand.  There are scores of different species of giant silk moths to experience; each provides an entirely new set of surprises with spectacular colors and patterns in both caterpillars and moths, sure to perplex and amaze.

Students will be encouraged to document the process of rearing silk moths, either with a written narrative accompanied by drawings, close-up photography, or a short video. Upon completion, objectives include sharing the experience by posting online.

Overview of Activities:

1. Raise caterpillars in the family Saturniidae (order Lepidoptera, comprising butterflies and moths).

Raise moths all the way to cocoon stage. If they are a multivoltine species (meaning they have several broods in one year), and it is the first brood of the season, watch the cocoons hatch about 2 to 3 weeks after forming. If you have both males and females, see if they will mate in a net cage. (Note: it is not recommended to continually inbreed, but once for student observation comprises a good learning experience).

If the moths have mated, when they separate, place the female in a closed brown paper bag to lay her eggs. She will die naturally soon after laying eggs.

2. Care for cocoons; keep them over-winter until they hatch into giant moths next spring! (See separate instructions for keeping cocoons, coming soon.)

3. Learn ways to encourage mating of newly hatched adult moths.

4. Incubate moth eggs (about 10-20 days).

5. Continue the cycle, from caterpillar to adult silk moth.

Luna moth (Actias luna) raised on Rhus trilobata, also known as 3-leaf sumac or skunkbush sumac.

Course Part 2: Mounting and Displaying Giant Silk Moths

It is an essential fact that the giant silk moths that we choose to raise are not pollinators. They have one mission as adult moths: to mate and lay eggs. Mating is usually accomplished in less than one week.  Whether the adult moth does not have a mate, fails to mate, or successfully mates, afterward, the specimen may be preserved in a framed display for future study and reference.

If not preserved, the moth dies, and the specimen is lost.  Preservation ensures that we keep and share the beauty of these creatures with others and provides a record of our accomplishment by observing its life cycle. In the wild, giant silk moths face numerous challenges, from a deadly virus (which only infects insects) to a range of predators and parasites.

1. Freeze the specimen if it is not able to mate or has already mated and is at the end of its life cycle. Leave it in the freezer approximately 24 hours in a closed plastic bag expanded with air to keep the moth’s wings and antennae from becoming damaged.

2. Relax the specimen prior to mounting: If not taking it right from the freezer to mount (step 3), relax the butterfly or moth first. Layer the bottom of a plastic Ziplock container with several layers of paper towels. Wet them but don’t leave a pool of water. Then place approximately 1 tbsp. of Pine Sol (or alternatively, you can use 1 part water, 1 part drug store alcohol) in the center.  Layer dry bubble wrap on top of paper towels. Then place the insect on a loose piece of parchment paper covered top and bottom. Take care to prevent the specimen from getting wet, or contacting the wet paper towels. Leave the specimen sealed in the box for a day or two. Can be kept in the refrigerator in the relaxing box if keeping more than 2 days before mounting.

Here is a video showing how to use Pine Sol in your relaxing box; keeps the butterfly or moth from molding in the refrigerator and keeps insects off your dried mounted specimen:

3. Mount the specimen. You will need a Styrofoam spreading board, blunt forceps, insect pins, and either waxed, parchment, or tracing paper. You can use either flat or slightly angled pinning boards. The angled pinning boards are preferred for use in museum displays because it allows for some crowding together of butterflies and moths in a storage case. If planning a Riker mount display (our method), flat spreading boards are fine.

To mount the specimen:

Learn another method to mount a butterfly or moth. Watch this video.

Learn about some of the world’s largest giant silk moths, Atlas moths.

For very large specimens, some entomologists inject hot water into the body:

Another source provides additional details for ways to create an insect collection:

Published by Vicky Oldham

Natural history enthusiast, professional artist 35+ years.

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