Cocoons

When I was a teenager, I loved to hunt for moth cocoons. Although the cocoons were brown and drab, most of them, they were like a treasure for me. An Easter egg found in nature.

Usually, during the dead of winter, with little I could do outdoors, I always sat by the window on the school bus, simply watching the world pass by. My mind drifted sometimes, wondering what my father was doing and why we hadn’t heard from him, or I thought about writing stories, homework, and so forth. But one day, when the sky was heavily overcast, I watched the saplings along the roadside ditches. With no leaves on the trees, it was easy to see the hanging cocoons on the sassafras trees.

For some reason, at least back in the eighties, the road department never cut down these little patches of sassafras, and since this is what Prometheus moth caterpillars feed upon, I could usually find a half dozen or so at each of these places. The problem was that I usually spotted them several miles from the house, which meant a decent hike on a Saturday to get them.

Sometimes when I got to the trees to retrieve the cocoons, I’d discover that several had already hatched from the year before. A few might have been parasitized and dead. But a few held healthy pupae and would hatch once spring came.

The Prometheus moth is neat as adults because the males are a different color than the females. The males are black, and the females are a chestnut brown with interesting designs upon them, so they’re a species worth rearing. Another odd occurrence is the males generally hunt for the females around 4 o’clock in the afternoon to mate. The caterpillars are unique as well.

The pheromones the females release to attract a mate are quite strong and attract males for quite a distance. While I was a student at Berea College in 1993, a friend of mine went hiking with me, and I found a huge Prometheus cocoon in this marsh-like area in a small forest of Virginia pines. The cocoon was much larger than any Prometheus cocoon I’d seen, so I thought perhaps this was a different species altogether. But when it hatched in late April in my dorm room, it proved to be a Prometheus female, almost the size of a small Polyphemus moth.

The moth hatched from her cocoon, which I had pinned the silken handle to my bookshelf above my desk. She clung to the bottom of the cocoon to allow her wings to unfold, and while she did so, she was already trying to attract a mate by the afternoon. A soft bumping noise tapped my dorm window. I looked through the blinds and two males were fighting at the glass, trying to get inside. I was amazed that they could even detect her scent because the window was heavy glass about 2-3 inches thick. A few minutes later, four mesmerized male moths were trying to get inside my dorm room. And from out of nowhere a bluejay snapped one of the males into its beak and flew off.

I opened the window and let two of the males inside, before they became another bird’s supper. They flew frantically in circles for a moment and then they found her. It’s amazing how nature works to ensure the survival of species, and the power of pheromones is a mystery in some ways. As thick as the glass window was, and that my room was in town, I was astounded to see so many males fighting to get inside the dorm. I will probably never witness such a feat again, as I don’t collect any longer.

This weekend while driving through Ohio on some back roads, I noticed a patch of the sassafras trees and a few little cocoons hanging, which brought back memories. The last time I was in Alabama, driving around my old stomping grounds, I noticed no small patches of sassafras along the roadsides anymore. The saddening thing is how those little patches were where the most cocoons could be found. While in Berea in 1992-93, I had found places with thousands of sassafras trees growing in a mile-wide grove and expected to find lots of cocoons. I found none, which I thought odd. Why do they prefer smaller groves at the edge of the road?

While I miss those days of collecting cocoons, I no longer have the time to rear moths like I did many years ago. I have tried to find cocoons to take photos, but other than those I saw yesterday (without a camera on hand), I’ve not found any. It worries me how the environment keeps changing, and while sassafras growing on the edges of banks are nothing more than weed trees to the highway departments and land owners, they are food and shelter for an intriguing moth species, if one takes the time to notice.

Until next time ….

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