Monday, July 20, 2009

Good Moths and Bad Butterflies

Moths and butterflies are popularly believed to sit on opposite ends of the good-evil spectrum. Moths are often listed among the ranks of the villains of the insect world, and butterflies generally likened to angels, fairies, and other sweet, precious things.

In reality, there are "good" moths, and there are "bad" butterflies. Or rather, there are butterflies that can be quite a nuisance.

First, the good moths. I have Luna eggs -- lots of them. And I'd love to give some away. If you have any interest in trying to raise them, either as an ongoing hobby or as a one-time educational opportunity for yourself and/or your kids, please e-mail me. Lunas relatively easy pets, especially if you have easy access to their food supply: black walnut, white birch or sweet gum trees.

Speaking of good moths, I found someone in West Allis, another Giant Silk Moth hobbyist, who wants to trade eggs with me. He is raising Cecropias, Polyphemus and Monarch butterflies. I've always wanted to raise both Cecropias and Monarchs, and he doesn't currently have any Lunas. So today I'm supposed to drive out to his place, where he raises his moths in a large outdoor cage he uses to allow the mating females to "call" any males in the area with their scent hormones. Should be interesting.

Oh, and in my geekiest move yet, I started a Facebook fan page for Saturniinae. If you are on Facebook and like these amazing creatures as much as I do, please become a fan by searching on the name of the group: Giant Silk Moths.

Re: the bad butterflies. I harvested my first two brocoli florets late last week. Just took a kitchen knife and sawed off the biggest pieces. They were green and flawless, but for one thing -- caterpillars, small ones, hiding beneath each floret. And of course, I didn't discover this until *after* I blanched the brocoli for a pasta salad I was going to bring to a dinner with friends.

Had I bought this brocoli from the store and found it covered with worms, I might have tossed it right into the garbage, or perhaps the compost bin. But I painstakingly grew this brocoli myself. I wasn't going to give up on it that easily. So I very slowly examined each and every tiny bit to remove the half-boiled caterpillars. Needless to say, my children did not want to touch my "worm salad." My friends and Steve politely ate the salad, as did I. It tasted fine, and I'm fairly certain I got all the worms out, but I still ate every bite in terror that a forgotten worm would be revealed on someone's fork.

The pale green caterpillars are the offspring of a creature one might mistake as beneficial pollinator, a charming white butterfly that flits happily over one's vegetable garden before laying eggs all over the place.

I'm not sure how to handle something like this in the future. My understanding is that the best remedy for these or any "cabbage worms" is to remove the caterpillars as you find them and then squash them underfoot. I don't want to spray them with anything toxic -- that's surely far worse than finding unappetizing but probably healthy caterpillars on your food.

If anyone has a good organic worm removal method, please share. It's an icky sort of problem to have, to say the least. And I have yet to see what is revealed when I harvest the cabbages and cauliflower florets that are growing in the same square foot garden those charming white butterflies seem to love desecrating with their eggs.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My New Promethea Moths

This afternoon a friend tagged me on a Facebook photo of two large moths. The photo was taken by her relative in Menomonee Falls. My friend, who knows of my moth-fixation, was hoping I'd be able to help ID her cousin's find. I knew right away from the photos that the moths were either Cecropia, Polyphemus, or Promethea. I asked for more wing shots and then determined that they are Promethea moths -- a kind of Giant Silk Moth that is a relative of Actias luna.

I mentioned that my friend's cousin should try to save the eggs of the female moth (in the picture, the two were mating). She said raising moths wasn't really her cup of tea, but mentioned that I could claim the eggs -- and the moths -- if I so desired. It took me about ten minutes to decide whether it would be worth it to drive out to Menomonee Falls from Tosa to retrieve the moths. The decision was made when my friend's cousin told me that to prevent them from flying off while I was en route to her house, she coaxed them onto a stick and then put them in a five-gallon bucket with a screen top. "I'll be over right after dinner," I said.

I am now delighted to have in my brief possession a beautiful mating pair of Promethea moths. The male has wings that are a rich, dark brown (almost black) with waves of lighter browns on the back and more reddish colors underneath. Sadly, his wings are now tattered from all the time spent in flight, searching for a mate. The female's wings are in better shape at this point; they're a beautiful reddish-brown, with dots and waves of white and brown and other lovely accents. The wingspan is between three and four inches.

Naturally, I turned to the Canadian moth guru Bill Oehlke for information on how to rear Promethea offspring. I'm hoping the female will lay her eggs on a paper towel I placed in the five gallon bucket.

Here are two photos. The first is the best shot I could get of the active-but-worn-out male and the impregnated female; the second is a close-up of the female.

These two Promethea join the nine-plus Lunas that have eclosed over the last couple of days inside my moth terrarium. I already have eggs from one mating pair of Lunas and look forward to raising a new generation of caterpillars -- hopefully two kinds!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Bright Moon in a Dark Sky

I realize it's been a while since I last posted to the blog, and frankly, it's probably because I've been a bit depressed since the caterpillars pupated. It's that time of year when so many people are out of town, the Fourth of July is over, and summer vacation gets into a kind of lull. Beyond that, though, there've been a few little upsets that got me down. For example, it looks like a creature of some sort snatched my baby pomegranates, because they're gone. My yard is starved for rain, the rain barrels are empty. Worst of all, I have *another* raging case of compost gnats in my vermicompost bins, an embarrassing problem for someone folks think of as a "go to person" on the subject of vermicomposting. I'm not sure whether to bring in the heavy artillary (beneficial nematodes) or perhaps dump the bins in my outdoor composter and start over with new worms. There is nothing worse than having to examine every beverage before taking a sip to make sure there aren't any gnats floating in the top. Major nasty.

So then today I got to spent a few hours with my mother-in-law and a friend at eight private gardens for the annual Secret Gardens of Wauwatosa Tour, which was great. I saw so many lovely things today that it inspired me to keep plugging away at my own gardens. At the same time, though, when I got home my own yard suddenly looked rather pathetic and messy, which again has me feeling glum. There's still so much work to do, and it's time consuming, potentially expensive work. Ugh.

Yes, fanatic growers do have their rough spells.

Thankfully, amid all this self-pitying I was given a special gift. When I sat down at my computer this afternoon, I looked over at the bankers box in which all my cocoons are sitting and saw one pale Luna moth resting inside. With the help of my two older daughters we gently lifted him out of the box and put him inside my screened butterfly terrarium.

Here are two photos of my new moth:

Isn't he sweet?