sultry, summer afternoon, I stood on a grimy subway
platform in Greenwich Village, in a throng of weary,
hot commuters. One by one, as we became aware of an
amazing sight, grim faces softened and smiles appeared.
Right above our heads, floating in the dusty air, was
a huge cecropia moth! What a splendid creature it was.
It brought a moment of joyful wonderment to those jaded
The cecropia is a member of the order Lepidoptera, and
the family Saturniidae, our native giant silkworm moths.
In fact, the cecropia is the largest moth in North America!
Other members of this family are: the beautiful luna
moth, the promethea moth, the polyphemus moth, and the
The caterpillars of the giant silkworm moths, although
large, do not occur in sufficient numbers to cause extensive
damage to the trees and shrubs they feed upon. Among
these are the wild cherry, apple, plum, birch, maple,
elderberry, lilac and willow; in fact, they dine on
over fifty species of plants.
From a tiny white egg laid on the undersurface of a
leaf, a tiny black larva emerges. It has six little
feet near its head and many false feet as well, with
which it can crawl along. It immediately begins the
work of its life to eat and eat, until its skin
is so tight that it must split and be shed. The larva,
or caterpillar, is now a dull orange color. When it
outgrows its orange skin, it "molts" once
more, and emerges as a yellow creature. The next molting
produces a green caterpillar, decorated with rows of
gaudy bumps, or tubercules blue, red and yellow.
After the next molt, the caterpillar has the same coloration.
It gorges itself for two more weeks, and is, finally,
more than three inches long. Now it is ready to make
The caterpillar spins a silken thread from its mouth,
winds it many times about its body, and with it, attaches
itself lengthwise to a twig. When the caterpillar is
fully encased in its strong, well-camouflaged, brown
cocoon, it becomes a "pupa." During this stage,
the astonishing process of metamorphosis occurs. The
body of the helpless pupa is changing from that of a
caterpillar to that of a beautiful, winged moth.
In the spring, the adult moth, aided by two little hooks
on either side of its body, pulls itself out through
a weak spot at one end of the cocoon. Its large, velvety
wings are crumpled and damp. The moth rests, then spreads
its wings and pumps its body fluid through them. The
wings expand, then dry. They are spectacular, five to
six inches across!
The ground color of the wings is a rusty grayish-brown.
Their outer margins are tawny in hue. The wings are
crossed by white bands bordered in red, and each wing
sports a white and red crescent near its center. Each
of the upper wings has a red "eye-spot" near
its apex. (Eye-spots on wings may be designed either
to frighten off enemies, or conversely, to attract their
attention away from the soft, vulnerable body.) The
cecropia's furry body is reddish-orange with a white
collar and white rings on the abdomen. The antennae
The adult cecropia has mouth parts that are so undeveloped
that it cannot eat. It lives just long enough to find
its mate and reproduce. The male cecropia is attracted
to a scent the female produces which he can perceive
at a distance of three miles! After mating, the female
has just enough strength to lay her tiny eggs, several
hundred in number, and affix them to the undersurfaces
of leaves. Both parents then die, but the emerging baby
caterpillars continue the ancient cycle.
Articles by Miriam Sanders