Sunday, May 11, 2014

Luna Moths Inspire Poetry

Male Luna moth in morning sun. Note feathery antennae 
A different version of this article, with more photos, was posted on this blog May 2013. Still there.

Luna moths sightings are rare. The moths themselves are not so much rare as secluded, secretive and short-lived, for these are deep-woods dwelling, night-flying, short-lived moths. In New England, adults emerge from pupa in mid-May to early June. The adults rest all day. The adults do not feed, hence are never seen flitting from flower to flower, and live for only about a week - their sole purpose (besides beauty) being to mate before dying.

In northern states the cycle from egg hatching to egg laying takes a year, with only the last week spent as a winged adult. In central and southern states there may be two or even three generations during the warm months, with only first cycle of adults having overwintered as pupae.

The males use their intricately branched antennae to detect scent pheromones released by females. The detection system is so sensitive that a male in flight can detect the presence of just a few molecules in the air. He will then immediately turn and fly upwind into the mild night wind, traveling miles on her gradually intensifying scent steam until he finds her perched on a tree.

Each male and female mate once (a process that takes several hours). The female deposits several hundred fertilized eggs over the next 2-3 nights. Caterpillars hatch several weeks later, eat and grow until fall, over-winter as a pupa, then burst forth as adults in early summer.

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeding at flower
Luna moths have "eyespots" on both pairs of wings. Some related species have eyespots only on the underwings. There is a theory that moving the top pair of wings apart to suddenly reveal what looks like large eyes on the underwings might briefly scare away an attacking bird or other predator, allowing the moth time to escape.

Henry David Thoreau jotted a few notes in his journal, June 1859: "I found a remarkable moth lying flat on the still water as if asleep, they appear to sleep during the day, as large as the smaller birds. Five and a half inches in alar extent and about three inches long...with a remarkably narrow lunar cut tail of a sea green color with four conspicuous spots whitish within then a red line, then yellowish border below or toward the tail, but brown orange and black above toward head. A very robust body covered with a kind of downy plumage an inch and a quarter long by five eighths thick. The sight affected me as tropical and I suppose it is the northern verge of some species. It suggests into what productions Nature would run if all the year were a July."

Similar moths, i.e., night fliers with green coloring, wing eyespots and tailed underwings, live elsewhere in the world. A search on "moon moth" will yield information and pictures on many related species in Asia, Africa, plus one in Spain that as a caterpillar eats pine needles.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have wingspan and body
weight similar to Luna moths. Painting by Bruce Davidson.
In many cultures, butterflies and moths are thought to represent human souls. From Bulfinch's Mythology "The Greek name for a butterfly is Psyche, and the same word means the soul. There is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb [pupa] in which it has lain, after a dull, groveling, caterpillar existence, to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring. Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified by sufferings and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure happiness."

Psyche's story is of a young woman who became the lover of Eros (Cupid), who was with her only during the darkness of night. For the forbidden folly of viewing his sleeping body by lamplight, she was tasked by the Goddess Aphrodite (Eros' mother) with four near-impossible challenges. Upon completing these, she was given the drink of immortality by Zeus, and rejoined Eros. In art, Psyche is often portrayed with butterfly wings while Eros is shown with feathered wings.


Luna moths show up in poems. For reason of copyright, none are reproduced here, but an internet search on Luna moth poetry will turn up at least a dozen - easily enough for a chapbook. Authors, in no particular order: Carl Phillips, Sean Nevin, Robert Crawford, Cicely Parks, Jeff Friedman, Don McKay, David Mark, Jo Pitkin, Aerlynne, Amanda, Christine Kelley, Steve Luxton, Jerry Judge, Kay Goldstein, Sharon Rose Miller, Daniel Tobin, September...

An internet search on 'luna moth tattoo' will yield many interesting images.

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