Size and beauty come together for this stunning moth.
If its sheer size doesn't grab your attention, the cecropia moth's arresting coloration certainly will. Markings on this flier's grayish-brown wings include eyelike spots, red and white bands, and a quartet of creamy crescents outlined in reddish orange. Even the moth's red-and-white striped body is interesting.
This lively combination of colors would stand out on the most diminutive specimen, but the cecropia is far from small. With a wingspan that can reach 6 inches, it's the largest moth in North America.
Still, the sizable cecropia often evades notice because it isn't active during the day. The cecropia is attracted to bright lights, however, and people often witness it at night, perched on surfaces next to a light.
Moth or Butterfly?
If you spot one of these beauties in your backyard, you'll likely notice several characteristics that help distinguish this moth, and others, from butterflies. These include large, feathery antennae—which are more noticeable on males—and a bulky, robust body.
An individual cecropia moth isn't around for long. It emerges from its cocoon when the weather gets warm, usually in late May or early June, and it lives for a brief week or two.
This member of the silk moth family, sometimes referred to as a robin moth, has no mouth and doesn't eat. Instead, it focuses its energy and attention on finding a mate, breeding and laying its eggs.
As soon as the female emerges from its pupa, it emits a powerful scent, called a pheromone. This is designed to attract a mate. Males are equipped with larger antennae that allow them to detect these pheromones up to 1 mile away.
Once a pair is established, they stay together for only a few hours. Then the female flies off to lay her eggs. She'll deposit them, as many as 100 at a time, on the foliage of the various host plants. These can include dogwood, box elder, sugar maple, birch, pear, cherry, plum and apple.
In a week to 14 days, the eggs hatch and tiny mosquito-sized black caterpillars begin gobbling up everything they can find. These hearty eaters would decimate their host plants if it weren't for their many natural predators that keep their numbers under control. The caterpillar's enormous appetite fuels its rapid growth, and it sheds its skin, or molts, several times before reaching maturity. Each time it molts, it changes color and eventually becomes a light-green hue dotted with a series of colorful spikes, or tubercles.
By late summer, the hefty green caterpillar, now measuring an impressive 5 inches long, has eaten its fill and is ready to settle in for the winter. It spins a large, weather-resistant brown silk cocoon attached to a branch or tree trunk. This cocoon is tough enough to withstand subzero temperatures. Once spring arrives, a striking adult cecropia emerges and flies off to continue the cycle of life.