In early spring of 2012, as my daughter and I were leaving her gymnastics class, we noticed a group of people with phones in hand taking pictures of something fluttering around on a pile of pebbles near a juniper bush. We decided to take a closer look, not knowing the adventure we were about to embark on.
We found a giant moth, her wing very badly damaged. We decided to bring her home to show our family this beautiful creature, but also to release her in our garden. A better demise than a parking lot we thought.
My son, a budding entomologist, was so fascinated with our find he declared that it was “the best day ever!” We put her into a small container so that we could determine her species and take some pictures before releasing her. While we did our research, she managed to lay approximately 50 eggs! We couldn’t believe our luck! Our research showed us that what we had was a Cercropia Moth – one of the largest species of moths in North America. We were sad to also read that she would not live to see her eggs hatch; a fact we learned and accepted as part of the Cercropia life cycle.
Over the next couple of months, we followed our eggs as they hatched into caterpillars, changed through their 5 stages (each more beautiful than the last), and formed cocoons of silk.
HERE WE GO!
The first batch of caterpillars.
We were on an adventure, and didn’t even know it yet! We kept the eggs that the injured moth lay over the winter in our refrigerator (so they felt cold), and waited (painfully) until they turned into beautiful moths in the spring of 2013. We waited and checked the eggs every single day while we read and learned about these amazing creatures. I definitely feared we had done something wrong, that the eggs wouldn’t hatch, that I would have to disappoint my children … until one morning, I heard “MOM!!!!!MOM!!!!! WE HAVE CATERPILLARS!!!” I couldn’t believe how genuinely happy (and relieved) I was to hear that!
We were all so happy! My son and daughter went to school the next day to announce the newest members of our family. We were asked to bring them in and show classmates and teachers alike. We were learning so much each day as individuals and as a family. These caterpillars really brought science into our home in a way that no book or TV special ever could. My children’s attention span, willingness to learn, and pure love for these creatures was amazing. We even had names for them!
We learned that their different stages as caterpillars were called instars. We learned through amazing images what to look forward to in the development of these pretty uninspiring (first stage) little creatures. We learned that once they finish their development, they would form cocoons spun from silk. They would not change into moths until the following year! We learned that they would have to go through winter in our refrigerator ( a fact that disgusted as many as it wowed), and be brought out in early spring. We really couldn’t believe it.
Of the approximately 50 eggs, 5 caterpillars survived. They grew through their instars in textbook fashion. Everywhere we went we would talk about the caterpillars. Whenever people visited, we quickly took the back burner (with pleasure) to these freaking awesome creatures.
I knew that this whole journey was worth it when I heard my children discussing life cycles and using terms like metamorphosis, and giving mini lectures in normal conversations. These caterpillars really changed how we look at nature and life cycles. They became part of our family and they even came to our cottage! I have had many mixed reactions from my own peers. Some have asked for some caterpillars for their own children, others wonder how I let such “disgusting” creatures into my home.
Our silkworms ate, pooped, and grew. Then the time came when I heard another cry from my kids “MOM! WE HAVE A COCOON!!!”. Wow. I couldn’t believe it! We hadn’t killed them or messed them up. Nature took over. Slowly, one by one, all five formed their cocoons. Now what? We knew they had to experience winter. We knew we had to put them into our fridge and wait and hope we did the right thing at the right time.
My kids were anxious to take the cocoons out of the fridge this past spring. Even our youngest (now 3), who was too young to appreciate them as caterpillars, was so into this newest stage and checked each morning for moths! We decided before they hatched that we would like to try to mate a female if we had one. Of the five, we had three males and two females.
The first male we released on the first night.
Our journey did not end there. We built a cage good enough for mating (with the help of a wonderful resource), but not with holes large enough for them to escape. We were successful in our mating and we now have 30 caterpillars. We released all the moths into the wild so they could lay other eggs, and find other mates.
We were sad to see them go, but excited for the future of these new caterpillars. We still have our original moth immortalized in my son’s specimen collection.
This journey is still new each day, even though this is our second time around. We were able to share our caterpillars with other families who would like to show their children the beauty of nature and life cycles first hand.
The female moth as she is being released.
My kids learned to care for these creatures. They changed their leaves, cleaned their poop, named them, drew pictures of them, wrote journals about them! It is absolutely unbelievable that caterpillars and moths could have this effect on us!
I can’t describe how excited I was about all this. I amazed myself (building a mating cage for moths – seriously? I teach gymnastics!) through this whole process and I really felt like a kid again. This whole thing was so much fun, so educational, and I am so happy that my children and my husband and I were able to experience this.
Next time your child wants to bring nature into your home, see where it takes you!
Christina Markham is a mother of three by day and a gymnastics coach in the evening.