My absolute favorite insect to raise and release are Luna Moths! I find these little creatures absolutely fascinating. While the insects I use in my jewelry and artwork are ethically sourced after death from butterfly farms and sanctuaries, I like to raise some butterflies and moths myself from time to time to release into the wild, helping to increase natural populations. I only raise and release species that are native to NC. It is important to never release live insects into the wild unless you are sure that they are native to your area. Luna moths (also known by their scientific name "Actias Luna"), are found in North America, from east of the Great Plains in the United States to northern Mexico and from Saskatchewan eastward through central Quebec to Nova Scotia, Canada. They are common as far south as Central Florida.
Luna moths are part of the Saturniidae moth family and are one of the largest moths in North America, with wingspans reaching up to 4.5 inches. Adults are pale green with pink and yellow spots and their hind wings end in long tails. Their wing "tails" are a natural defense mechanism against predators, such as bats. As the bat flies in for the kill, the moth's moving tails distract and fool the bat, knocking the predator off target and allowing the moth to get away.
Luna moths are actually pretty common but rarely seen due to their very brief lifespan and nocturnal behavior. As with all Saturniidae moths, they do not eat or even have mouths! Once they have emerged from their cocoons, they live for only 4-7 days and have only one purpose, to mate. During this time, they live off the fat they have accumulated as a caterpillar. Each female moth lays 400–600 eggs during this time.
In order to properly raise your cocoons into moths, you should place your cocoons in a mesh insect house or any enclosed breathable container with dimensions of at least 1 foot by 1 foot. Unlike butterfly chrysalises, which need to be hung from a branch or stick, moth cocoons can be placed directly on the bottom of the container. However, a branch or stick should still be placed inside the container for when the moths emerge so that they can hang and dry their wings. The cocoons will wriggle and move about a bit on the floor of the container. Keep the container humid by spritzing the inside with tepid water each morning. You can also place a wet paper towel over the enclosure, if the sides are breathable mesh. This humidity will encourage the moths to emerge from their cocoons.
My luna moth cocoons have generally taken 1-2 weeks to emerge. When the luna moths finally emerge from their cocoons, their abdomens will be fat and swollen and their wings will be shriveled, soft, and wet. Don't worry, this is totally normal! During the first few hours after they emerge, they will find a spot inside the enclosure, usually hanging from the branch you have placed inside or from the top of the cage. They will then sit still while pumping hemolymph (invertebrates equivalent to blood) from their abdomen into their wings. During this time, the moth's wings will slowly "inflate", becoming larger, flatter, and stiffer. The moth will have to wait for their wings to dry and harden before they will be able to fly. This process can take 2–5 hours to complete. While hanging inside the container, drying their wings, they will resemble goofy little cartoon characters from the underside. Take this opportunity to take lots of photos! Do not release the moths outside until their wings are completely spread out and dry as they will be easy prey if they are not yet able to fly. I usually keep mine in their enclosure for about 8 hours just to be sure, before I let them go outside.
You can distinguish male luna moths by their larger and wider antennae. Females also tend to stay more still, as they are releasing pheromones to attract males. You can order your own cocoons and mesh enclosures from hobbyists online. Raising and releasing luna moths is truly fascinating and a great way to teach kids about insect life cycles!
To purchase my jewelry made with ethically sourced luna moths after they naturally expire, click here!