By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener The Wildlife Gardener agreed to water a friend’s roses while she went to Glastonbury. Little did I know that, a fortnight later, my neighbourliness would result in a covetable prize for nature anoraks like myself: a real-time peek into the life cycle of a moth: the Vapourer moth (Orgyia antiqua) to be more specific. I vaguely remembered my countryman Dad telling me that Vapourer moths were particularly interesting: they have feathery antennae and the females send out powerful sex pheromones that have males from miles around flocking to be her gentlemen callers. Caroline’s roses were covered in these groovy psychedelic Vapourer caterpillars that would not have looked out of place in the mosh pit at Glastonbury:
It has been years since I’ve kept caterpillars in a jar and hatched moths. I figured Caroline wouldn’t miss a few punk rose-destroyers, and it would be educational for the Junior Wildlife Gardeners to do some captive breeding. So, I put five itchy-looking caterpillars in a big glass vase with damp compost and rose branches from the Wildlife Garden, some perforated clingfilm on top and placed them on the kitchen windowsill where I could watch them as I washed up. The caterpillars munched away for a week or so, then activity quietened down. I kept an eye on the vase to see if any little chestnut-brown moths emerged. Nothing. So I took the vase out into the garden to have a closer look at its contents. Whoah! What’s this?:
This curious furry little bug is a female Vapourer moth. She is wingless, and the sole purpose of her short life is to mate and lay eggs. Because she can’t fly about, she emits strong pheromones to attract male Vapourers to come to her. I thought I’d test the pheromone thing, expecting nothing much to come of it. I took the clingfilm off the vase and put it on the garden table. If there were to be any moth-on-moth action, I expected it to take place at dusk or beyond: I hadn’t realised that Vapourer moths are day fliers. Within TEN MINUTES two virile male Vapourer moths had appeared, one luckier than the other:
This handsome chestnut male with his magnificent feathered antennae paid court to his furry partner for about half an hour, to the huge amusement of the JWGs who couldn’t believe they were watching moths’actually having a sex’. And then he flew off. Wasting no time, the female got on with her life’s work: laying eggs to make more Vapourer moths:
Aaah. I’ll leave the story at this point. There’s still one caterpillar munching away in the vase, a couple of cocoons that I can see, and very soon, there will be a dead female. And I’ll feel a little bit sad. But I’ll have some Vapourer moth eggs to overwinter and release into the Wildlife Garden next year. As my Dad said, Vapourer moths really are special.