One eye in a sea of many . . .

This is a Polyphemus Moth, one of the largest of the Giant Silkworm Moths, although not the largest North American moth, the Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

Because of the large eyespot on each hind wing, this moth is named after Polyphemus, the legendary Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey who lived in a cave and tended sheep and ate straying sailors.

From the outside, or underneath, when they are closed, the Polyphemus moths’ wings look like dead leaves. But if this moth is disturbed too much, it may drop onto the ground and flop its wings vigorously. It will snap its wings open as an anti-predation mechanism intended to expose the large eyespots which mimic an owl’s eyes which can startle a predator, such as a squirrel or bird. After a while the moth will cease flopping, then continue to “warm up”. Silk moths are so large that they must warm their flight muscles for a minute or two before they can fly. They do this by shivering and in doing so, the flight muscles vibrate in opposition to each other rather than in synchrony as they would in flight.

The first time I ever held a large Silkmoth I thought the trembling was fear . . . it’s really just getting ready to fly. I guess we are always trembling before something big is about to happen, before we must take flight.

The moth I have pictured is a male, which you can tell by the larger, fan-like antennae. Today, my boss called me to the back office where he pointed out a strange creature hanging from the eaves. as if by miracle . . . it was a female, of the same species. Shortly after I captured her, she laid eggs! I collected them and took her home to meet the male I had.

Now—the eggs she laid may be infertile—I will know in a few days if they collapse. There is also a good chance they may be viable, in which case this is the caterpillar of the Polyphemus Moth. Then I will be fortunate enough to witness the whole cycle through pupation and rebirth again, with fine, unbattered specimens for later.

This moth is born without mouth parts. It does not eat. There is nothing I can do to preserve it. This is a feature that constantly amazes me. All of its energy and food will have been stored up from all the eating it did as a caterpillar. It will mate and it will lay eggs and it will die.

A rainstorm came tonight, windy and cold, whispering around the house. I let the moths out of their enclosure, they crawled over my hands, scaled the length of my arm, crawled up my neck and lit off from the top of my head into the air of the room, the cats watched and I forbade them to leap or attack. I put them away and they flailed helplessly, battering against the edges of the world. could I keep them, knowing they die soon anyway and I would be left with their colorful cases? could I watch them die or come back to find them this way—colorful, then pale and ragged?

I opened the front door, opened the cage and the male found its way out immediately fluttering somewhere above the rain into the treetops. the female dragged herself lightly along, her abdomen a heavy half-moon curved to lay eggs, looking more tired, flagged, drugged, close to sleep. I wonder how I will find her in the morning.

I have to respect a creature whose ending life cycle seeks only to love briefly and to die. It spends 10 to 14 days in its tiny white infancy, eats its own shell after being born and then begins to eat everything it is presented, absorbing all it can. it sheds itself five or 6 times, each one called an “instar” and then it crawls away to hide, spins a cocoon in August or September and sleeps until May or June where upon emerging a shriveled childlike thing again, it will blossom fully and live briefly.

This is so much like us—we spend our first years helpless and hungry, we take everything we are given, swallow it up whole, we shed our skins several times trying to be stars and by the time we know, by the time we are calm and nearly perfect, our days left to love and to live are considerably short.

Best to keep our eyes open at night, to flap around for attention to prove we exist, to shiver for warmth and work our muscles to gather internal strength when we must finally take our leave, and to leave knowing we have loved.

3 thoughts on “One eye in a sea of many . . .”

  1. Ananda says:

    sunny today June 7th 2014. stepped out into stairwell on my way to refill bird feeders and immediately saw this huge orange – butterfly? – no, must be moth, wings are raised together, it rests, and is sleeping this afternoon in the shade by the security light i always wish i could do away with. (but even if i did remove the twisty bulb, someone would complain and someone else would replace it) i avoid disturbing the spiders who have set up their webs here, cuz they have babies to raise, too . But when i find a moth large enough to survive capture and release, i do so, with the cup and paper capture. i try to release them away from light as much as possible and they do usually head into the alders and oaks and tangled shrubs of all sorts beyond the impenetrable perimeter of invasive blackberries that do a fine job of protecting the narrow stream running thru the strip of wetland / greenway that threads thru this upscale residential area on the outer edge of Portland . I have never seen a moth this big and it is stunning, perfect, beautiful beyond words. i see the feathery antennae, the furry looking body, the solidity of these magnificent wings. I wish now, sorta, that i had left it there, but a concrete stairway is no place for such a thing, and i feared it becoming entangled in the webs , tho likely it is strong enough and the webs not able to hold it … i started down the steps but thought: no! i gotta get a photo, i’ll never see one again , and i may forget details and be unable to ID it afterwards, but as i hastily searched for the phone which i more often than not will fail to locate, it began shivering the wings it had opened – as you described. As i headed back outside thinking alright i’ll go up and check the car, see if i left the phone there (8mp camera , better than the 5mp of the tablet) thinking a few minutes inside this oversize tumbler isn’t gonna hurt him, he (I only know he’s a he cuz of your info about sexing by antennae) began beating his wings insistently and after only a few moment’s hesitation i knew i had to abandon the trip up to the car. I drank in a few more seconds sight of him and slid back the thin cardboard covering the opening. He’d already made his way as close to the wider diameter of the opening as he could go and so leapt free in a second: out, up and fluttering in one surveying circle before descending in a relatively controlled way into the dappled shadows of the undergrowth. Back inside began the search online for info which eventually brought me to your most excellent photo with accompanying writings. I thank you for telling me things i wanted to know and i hope this will be a fine summer for you.

    i wish you well . best , A.

  2. Lisa says:

    Enjoyed your writing…shared, and will be back. ?

    1. Andrea Janda says:

      Thank you for reading, Lisa!

Comments are closed.