The largest moth in North America: the cecropia moth

 In Blog, Insects

Intro­duc­ing the largest moth in North Amer­i­ca — the cecropia moth! In addi­tion to the trees and shrubs we grow in our Her­itage Nurs­ery, we’ve also been grow­ing this spec­tac­u­lar moth.

In ear­ly August of 2018, one of our Her­itage Nurs­ery staff mem­bers noticed a col­or­ful cater­pil­lar feed­ing on New Jer­sey tea shrubs. Joe Stavish, Com­mu­ni­ty Edu­ca­tion Coor­di­na­tor, iden­ti­fied it as a cecropia moth cater­pil­lar. Tree Pitts­burgh staff built a screen box around the plant to pro­tect the cater­pil­lar from hun­gry birds and par­a­sitic wasps. For the remain­der of the sum­mer, the cater­pil­lar fed and grew (molt­ed). It spun a large silk cocoon in the fall to overwinter.

On Mon­day June 24, 2019, the moth emerged! This moth is a female, deter­mined by its small anten­nae (male cecropia moths have larg­er, more feath­ery anten­nae which they use to smell and locate female moths from up to one mile away).

What is so spe­cial about the cecropia moth (Hyalopho­ra cecropia)? It’s the largest native moth in North Amer­i­ca with a wingspan up to 7 inch­es across!

Adult cecropia only live about a week, rely­ing on their fat reserves to sur­vive. They are inca­pable of eat­ing. The sole pur­pose of their adult stage is to mate and lay eggs. The cater­pil­lars are also harm­less, and despite feed­ing on leaves all sum­mer, their nat­u­ral­ly low abun­dance pre­vents sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to plants.

A female cecropia can lay more than 100 eggs, which she attach­es in small groups on the leaves or stems of var­i­ous host plants and trees includ­ing apple, ash, birch, box elder, cher­ry, elm, large, maple, poplar, sas­safras, and wil­low (to name a few).

If you’re lucky enough to see one, there’s no need to freak out! Sim­ply take some pho­tos and enjoy the moth­’s beau­ty — and maybe turn off your porch light so they can go about their business.

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