Friday, February 6, 2015

Rearing Saturniids (Antheraea polyphemus

   Saturnnidae is the family for some of the worlds largest moths, known as "giant silkmoths". In the east we have 28 different species: Antheraea polyphemus, also known as the "polyphemus moth" is one of them.
   Saturniids are often reared and bred because the both the moths and caterpillars are very large and filled with color. Not to mention the life cycle is very fun to watch from the moment an egg is laid to the day the adult moth emerges from its cocoon. I've been rearing and breeding polyphemus moths for over 3 years now, and I'm about to give you a quick glimpse into how it's done.

The Search: 

   Some people take the easy route when starting to rear a Saturniid and will order the eggs or cocoons off a website. Others (like myself) spend winter months searching the woods for cocoons in hopes they'll find some to start their own generations. Giant silkmoths happen to have large cocoons (as they are very large themselves) and a variety of species actually attach their cocoons to the tree where they were eating. This makes them easy to spot in the winter when most leaves have shed to the ground. A few species that are easy to find are listed below:

Hyalophora cecropia: 

Callosamia promethea: 

Antheraea polyphemus: 

   Once you've obtained a cocoon... or a dozen. You wait out the winter months for spring when all the fun begins! You must keep the cocoons in a cold place that gets moisture now and then because they could die from dehydration. I leave mine outside so the weather keeps maintenance for me. Saturnidae moths in the New England region emerge sometime in late May. I normally see my polyphemus moths emerging around May 21st. Below is an image I took of one of my newly emerged polyphemus moths: 


   As the moths emerge you may find that some have large fanned antennae while others have slim antennae. The slim antennae indicates that the moth is female. Males have large fanned out antennae because they need to track down the females pheromone. Female moths won't fly until after they've mated, they instead stay perched near where they emerged and release a pheromone. Males can fly up to miles to find a pheromone and track the female. 
   Polyphemus moths have the fortunate breeding time between 11pm and 3am (possibly later). I normally stake out behind one of my friend's sugar shack with some females and wait it out. Normally within an hour or two some males come flying into view. 

   After a successfully pairing the female will stay paired with her mate for a long time. Again each species is different, but my poly's usually stay paired well into the day. Below is an image taken from last years brood

   After the pair has seperated, I take the female moth and place her in a large brown paper bag. I use paper bags because after she's laid her eggs they're easy to cut out. The top of the bag must be either clipped shut or folded over so she won't fly away. She'll lay large groupings of eggs over the course of the next day.

Egg Care: 

   Egg care is important despite them only staying in their eggs for a week or two. The eggs should be placed in a container with a lid. They don't need air so I normally use a plastic Chinese takeout container. DO NOT LEAVE THE CONTAINER IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT. Also, the eggs can't be too dry so it's okay if there is moisture in the container. In fact on very hot dry days I'll mist the eggs with water. 

General Life Cycle: 

   Saturniid caterpillars have 4 instars. The first is very small so I keep the caterpillars in a container (usually the one I kept the eggs in). The container must have a lid so they can't escape, but this time it must also have many tiny air holes. As the caterpillars grow I often take the lid off to replenish the air faster before I transition them into a larger container or a glass tank. It's important to note that the containers must be cleaned because the caterpillars can get ill if near their frass (insect poop) for too long. After the first caterpillars have emerged from their eggs it's important to have their food source ready. I supply mine with maple, but each species has a large number of trees for which they prefer. Another common food source people use for polyphemus are oak leaves. 

The image above is of newly emerged polyphemus caterpillars along with the eggs. You'll find that they grow very fast, and get very large! I usually start sleeving my caterpillars around the 3rd instar. When the caterpillars reach their 4th instar I have to change their sleeves almost daily! It's important to keep the sleeves clean of frass because not only will they potentially die from disease, but you don't want them to be making their cocoons in it. 

This fat fella is well on his or her way to making a cocoon. Once the caterpillars reach the full size of their 4th instar, they begin to make their cocoon. Each species has different behaviors associated with cocoon making, and polyphemus tend to wander... They literally start walking away from whatever leaf they were last eating, and make their cocoons just about anywhere. This is why it's important to keep them sleeved. 

This polyphemus caterpillar has begun to spin its cocoon. They coil their bodies into a leaf and seal it with silk. Each species does something different, but the polyphemus cocoons end up taking on an oval shape resembling an egg. 

Final Statements: 

   Saturniidae rearing is a great hobby for all ages, and I strongly recommend it for people who have an interest in insects. One thing to consider is that each species is different, and some are much harder to rear than others. So remember to identify the species, and have a general knowledge for what it needs before starting. 

All images and Post by Mitchel Logan 


  1. Instructor testing comments.

  2. Mitchel,
    Really cool and informative post you have here; it's clear that you have a passion for what you do, and I think its awesome that you've taken your own photographs. I'm curious - what's the most interesting thing that has happened to you while doing this?

    ~David Almanzar

    1. Thanks David!
      I have to say the most interesting experience that has happened so far was the squirrel disaster last summer. I never knew squirrels at insects until one started breaking into my sleeves and eating the caterpillars. This happened while they were in their 4th instar, so it looked like something from Texas Chainsaw Massacre... Needless to say, a terrible experience.

      ~ Mitch

  3. This is quite the operation you have here. Is this something you can do right in Amherst? At least, the pictures looked like some places I've seen in the woods outside Umass. Or is it something you do somewhere else in New England?

    -Posted by Patrick O'Loughlin

    1. I actually do this in my hometown of Essex Jct. VT!

      ~ Mitch

  4. Your post was fun and easy to read; I really liked how you incorporated your own pictures and anecdotes and it is evident you love what you do! You said at the beginning of your post that you've been breeding polyphemus moths for 3 years now. How did you get started with this hobby? Was there something in particular that intrigued you to study them? Thanks!

    -Rebecca Quirie

    1. Thanks Rebecca!

      I actually got started with this hobby through pure interest in giant silkmoths. I've always been interested in raising caterpillars, and when I learned about rearing Saturniids I just ventured out to start looking for cocoons!

      ~ Mitch

  5. Hello Mitch. I wanted to say I love all the information and photos. I also have a love for giant moths. I live in South Jersey and have been trying to raise some just simply because I would like to help out what I think to be a decreasing population and I believe there's nothing more beautiful than one of these moths emerging from its cocoons and watching their wings form and dry out. Anyway, I was wondering if you have any advice on which types of trees I would be most likely to find either eggs or caterpillars? The 2 caterpillars I found last year died from that darn wasp. Thanks for taking the time to read this and great job on this article!

  6. My female won't fully open her wings..... It's been about a week