Reader Mark Sturtevant, who appeared previously with pictures of GIANT INSECTS, has some practical advice about how to raise them for fun (but not profit). If you have kids, this is a cool way to teach them about complex life cycles, and has the advantage that, at the end of it all, you set the insects free. Here’s Mark’s advice; the only requirement is fresh leaves, which should be available if you’re synchronizing your hobby with nature:
You may remember that I was raising a batch of cecropia larvae (Hyalophora cecropia) and documenting the process with pictures. These grow into one of the largest larvae in the U.S. (but not the largest by length) and later become our largest moth. Raising giant Saturniid moths is a hobby of mine, and now I am discovering that taking pictures makes it even more rewarding. The several pictures show the different growth stages that they have passed through so far. The pictures of the younger larvae were taken with an iPhone 5S with a cheap clip-on macro lens. The larger larvae were photographed with a Nikon Coolpix camera.
1. Newly hatched 1st instar larva with eggs, and mature 1st instar. Eggs are kept in small serving cups without food. Larvae are transferred to leaves of a chosen food plant. I am using the common garden lilac as their food source, although they will accept over a dozen species of common plants. Once they are started on a food plant, however, they will not accept a different species of plant.
2. 2nd , 3rd, and early 4th instar larvae. One of the things I like about this species is that the larvae change their colors as they grow. I have no idea why they do this. [JAC: Readers? Do you know? I suspect spines are predator deterrent and that the caterpillars are toxic. The colors are probably “aposematic,” or warning colors to deter predators as well. But I have no explanation for the color change over time.] The spiny decorations may somewhat deter ants, and they might make them unpleasant for birds to swallow.
3. Mature 4th instar larvae. By this time they are over 2 inches long. Next, they will molt to the final (5th) instar, and then get really REALLY big before spinning cocoons. Next year I should have a bunch of giant moths that look like cuddly plush toys.
4. These pictures show how I feed my babies. The larger larvae stay on a bouquet of branches in a big plastic jar. The air holes have to be large so that condensation does not form.
Eggs and pupae can be purchased through a breeder who lives in Canada. This hobby is easy and fun for adults, and kids go bonkers over these beautiful monsters.
Here’s a picture from the breeder’s website. Can there be a prettier hat? (Bonus points: identify the moths.)
The ultimate species, in my opinion, are hickory horned devils. By length, these grow into the largest ‘pillars in the U.S. I raised a batch last year, and I have pictures to prove it. But I plan to raise both cecropias and hickory horned devils next year. I think the two should meet! It will be Mothzilla vs Mothasaurus rex!