Mythic Moths

As the spring nights grow warmer, moths begin fluttering through the moonlit forest and around porch lights across the Northeast. Each is beautiful but the most stunning may the Saturniid or “great silkworm” moths. Saturniids are distinctive for their colorful patterning, wingspans that rival those of our largest butterflies, and colorful wing “eyespots” that reminded early entomologists of Saturn’s rings. Their names—Promethea, Cecropia, Polyphemus, Luna—are mythic and enchanting.

Two Saturniid species have been visiting Pinkham Notch recently. The brown moth with purple and yellow eyespots pictured is a Polyphemus, named for the man-eating Cyclops blinded by Odysseus. She was found on a cool morning last week near the Visitor Center, shivering to kindle body heat. Not far away sat a lime-green Luna (Latin for “moon”), his tattered wings telling of nocturnal adventures.

The caterpillars of these two moth species feed on a variety of tree leaves, including birch, willow, maple, oak and beech. Emerging from their cocoons in late April and early May, they lack mouthparts and have just one week of adult life to fly, breed, and lay eggs for a future generation of moonlight visitors. For more information on these and other Saturniids, check out Moths and Butterflies of North America at

Text and photos by  P. Davenport
AMC Naturalist Guide