By Rick and Claudia Mikula. Reprinted from Environment Pennsylvania, July/August 1993
In our salute to summer, we would like to begin a series of articles dealing with the hand-raising of butterflies and moths. Great success may be achieved with no investment. By using many recyclable household items, purchasing supplies will become unnecessary. Just remember: "Grow before you throw." You will find that many discarded items will serve as wonderful breeding chambers.
For the novice, there is nothing better than a good field guide. The best is the Golden Nature Guide's Butterflies and Moths, priced around four dollars. It is excellent in identifying caterpillars and in determining the gender of adults. Food plants and territorial ranges are also covered quite well.
But we can sidestep the book using some simple techniques. Hold a butterfly by the wings and as close to its body as possible. With the legs facing upward and the head away from you, examine the tip of the abdomen. Many of the males exhibit a set of claspers which are used in mating. They are not pinchers and cannot hurt you. If it is a male, set it free. We are interested only in the females to obtain eggs.
Pennsylvania has seven silk moths, six of which may be as large as some birds. They are quite beautiful and extremely exciting to rear. To determine a female, examine the antennae. Both sexes have antennae resembling tiny feathers. The females will have a uniform width, and the male's antennae will be much wider at the center than at the ends.
If there is a problem in sexing your new pets, simply request a paper bag next time you are at the grocery store. These are great little egg factories, and free too! (That is, if we overlook the $94.15 it took to fill it with groceries.) However, if you have a likely female moth, place her in the empty paper bag. Fold the top over just enough to protect against escape and secure it with a clothespin. If the host plant is known, include a sprig or some leaves inside the bag and leave it overnight. Leaves are not always necessary for success. The next morning, open the bag and allow the moth to go free. Examining the inside walls may yield countless eggs. A female is capable of laying hundreds of eggs.
With a butterfly, the method is different. Your best success will come with the use of the host plant. A potted plant will work the best. A plant cutting placed in a recycled soft drink bottle will do nicely. Next, place an empty paper bag upside down and cover the plant. (It should be completely inside). Reaching inside, place the female on the plant and quickly remove your arm. Fasten the opening against the container with a rubber band or drawstring. Once again, allow it to sit undisturbed overnight. If she does not lay eggs in this period, place the entire contraption in the refrigerator for a few hours. When removed, leave it at ambient temperature. This tricks them into thinking winter is on the way, and will force egg laying.
If the 2-liter bottle setup or paper bag approach aren't appealing enough, you may decide to search for wild laid eggs in the field. In that case, don't worry about paper or plastic...concentrate on pennyroyal! It won't make your female lay eggs, but it could keep you from developing those pesky little bulls-eye-shaped sores that mean LYME disease. Pennyroyal is a natural repellent of ticks that cause this affliction. Maintain a patch of it in your garden. Before any trips into the field, walk in the pennyroyal first making sure to get it on your pants cuffs. It's good protection and only takes a few seconds. It wouldn't hurt to give old Fido a roll in it also.
Any female collected in the wild will probably be fertile and already laying eggs. Female silk moths can easily be fertilized. Simply place her in a net cage overnight. Many have the ability to attract males from miles away. Pheromones, the emitted scent of the Cecropia moth, can be detected up to seven miles away. Mating may take place through the net walls of the cage, and great numbers of males sometimes collect. This often happens in the wee hours of the morning.
Eggs become caterpillars. At first, they may be smaller than half an eyebrow hair. When your eggs are ready to hatch, they may be placed directly on the plants in your garden. Here they could fall prey to predators and parasites. For the best results, they should be started in petri dishes. However, petri dishes cost too much, and there are plenty of other items that work just as well. For very young larvae, any airtight plastic deli type of container will do. Place a small piece of leaf or paper bag containing a few eggs in each container. If your eggs are on paper, supply a small portion of a leaf for food. They should be changed daily.
When caterpillars are very small, they may be transferred from one leaf to another by one of two means. With some species, hold a leaf containing the young larvae above the new leaf to be used. Only a few inches of space is necessary. Gently blow across the leaf surface and they will begin to lower themselves down. They will resemble miniature cliff rapellers descending on silken ropes. Allow them to come in contact with the new leaf underneath. Wait a few second and, making a circular motion with the old leaf, wind the excess silk web around the newer one. Then snap the thread free, and the transport is complete.
Other species are a bit more ornery but can still be moved easily. Place the tip of a #2 sable artist's brush underneath the head of the larva. Rolling the tip in a circular motion away from the larva, slice it underneath the abdomen until the caterpillar is completely on. Transfer it to the new leaf and repeat the procedure, rolling in the opposite direction. Once again, when the larva is free of the brush tip, make a circular motion with the brush around the leaf and snap the silk
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