Cinderella in Silk

Luna at Window_HGW

Luna Moth at Window

Henry Walters


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Midnight. A whomp against the window: a glimpse of wings. Big wings.

Birds leave feather-traces in oil on the glass, but this visitor leaves almost nothing—a couple fingertips of dust on the outside sill. It looks like dust, but under a lens the particles show themselves as beautiful, variegated scales, like a dense bouquet of colored-pencil shavings, or the foamy ruffles of an old-fashioned ball gown. And this from an insect who has just seven days to wear this elaborate dress.

Scales from the Eyespot of an Adult Luna Moth
Photograph by Peter Znamenskiy

At my window is an adult Luna Moth, one of the most striking members of the family Saturniidae and of the sub-group commonly known as the Giant Silk Moths. Not to be confused with the domesticated silkmoth (Bombyx mori), these are some of North America’s largest moths, one of which (the Cecropia) has a wingspan of up to five inches. Many species are uncommon or declining over large parts of their range, and the appearance—or apparition, really—of one at your window, no matter the hour, should rouse you from slumber.

Adult Luna Moth
Photograph by Henry Walters

The Luna is pressed to the glass like a lizard, soaking up the light. Its green wings taper into two curling streamers that dangle down behind, excessive as a pianist’s tailcoat. Its wide antennae spread out like the fronds of a tiny yellow fern—this is a male. All this elaborate get-up, the animal’s “adult” stage, lasts less than a week. It takes neither food nor water: its one aim is to find a mate in the short time remaining to it. Eggs are laid and hatched in late spring; the caterpillars eat nonstop all summer; and by early fall they have cocooned themselves inside a durable silk shell, in which they bide the entire winter, to emerge as moths in spring.

Polyphemus Moth Larva
Photograph by Henry Walters

Pending permission of the other members of the household, one can raise many species of these silk moths in one’s very own home. Given proper care over the course of a year, the insects will go through each stage of their preposterous life-cycle, right before one’s eyes. Forty-two caterpillars of the Polyphemus Moth, close cousin to the Luna, currently hang from sprigs of red oak in my living room—hairy, fleshy, unglorious things. Roughly the slime-green color of Ghostbusters’ “Ectoplasm,” they grow to be nearly four inches long and thicker than an index finger. The sound of their chewing is audible at all hours: in case you never read Eric Carle’s timeless children’s book, these caterpillars are very hungry. While they rarely cause any lasting damage to trees, I myself have had to forage whole branches to bring back to my voracious charges. Once in a while, venturing out to the woods, my headlamp beam combing for red oak, I could mistake myself for some strange creature of the night, drawn on by the light.

Adult Polyphemus Moth
Photograph by Henry Walters

We are expert at finding likenesses. I am like this. This is like that. One thing transforms into another, and the whole world is held together by the continuity. But it’s the unlikeness of these animals—the dissimilarity between amorphous caterpillar and the alien, marvelous, winged thing that emerges from its winter cocoon—that holds me, that makes me rub the sleep out of my eyes, not quite believing in this fragile green form on the glass.

Luna Moth at Window
Photograph by Henry Walters

~ By  Henry Walters

About This Blog

Field Notes From the Woods, written by Henry Walters, shares observations and ruminations on plants, wildlife, weather, and other facets of nature. Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

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My daughter in NC had a luna

My daughter in NC had a luna moth around her front window for a few days in the spring of 2013. I wish I could see one some day. I have seen the hummingbird moth here outside Pittsburgh a couple summers ago.

What an interesting article.

What an interesting article. The photos are beautiful.

We found a Luna moth at my

We found a Luna moth at my brother's house in SC back in May. It was on its last legs, but we got some pictures of it. Was so pretty. Hummingbird moths love moon flowers. Had them growing on my deck one year and there were so many of the moths, it was unpleasant to sit on the deck, getting bombarded by them. But they are pretty.

Hummingbird moths (of which

Henry Walters's picture

Hummingbird moths (of which there are a number of species) sometimes get a bad rap for their kinship to the Tomato Hornworm--both are close cousins in the Sphinx Moth family. But not to worry! Hummingbird moth larvae will not damage your garden.

I have had the privilege of

I have had the privilege of holding these beauties, Lunas, on a few occasions. They are magnificent creatures and such a shame that so few will ever see them. Thank you for the post that revived my memories.



Is there a type of moth that

Is there a type of moth that looks like a hummingbird but with antenas. I thought I was see a young hummer getting necter from my flowers untill I saw the antenas!

Yes, there is. It is called

Yes, there is. It is called the Hummingbird moth. I have seen them in Illinois & Indiana so far. They are beautiful!

They are huge! And beautiful.

They are huge! And beautiful. Is the female different in appearance from the male?

Saturniid males and females

Henry Walters's picture

Saturniid males and females are actually easy to tell apart: males have very wide antennae--they look veined, like tiny leaves--while the female's are much narrower, almost one-dimensional. One of my female Polyphemus Moths is pictured below, followed by a photograph of a male by Jim des Rivières.

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