Where's the menu for moths?

Since we live in the city, we were not used to dining in such a natural, outdoorsy setting. "Something just flew by," my husband, Ron, said as we settled into our seats at the open-air restaurant in La Fortuna, a couple of hours north of San José, Costa Rica. I looked around to see if I had missed an exotic bird.

We were on Day 3 of our vacation, and we had already fallen in love with the climate, the lushness of the vegetation, and the abundance of animal life.

As I reached for my water glass, I noticed a large moth peeking over the rim of my serving plate. This was not the small, familiar moth that I occasionally saw back home, resting on my walls or ceiling, or fluttering around some unattainable light.

This moth was the size of a monarch butterfly, with subtly marked brown and beige wings and a lively proboscis that wiggled tentatively onto my plate.

I could have shooed it away. But we had just toured a butterfly farm, which put me in a moth-friendly frame of mind. The moth waved its antennae. Perhaps its arrival was a pure accident of wind and nature. Or perhaps – I smiled even though I knew this wasn't likely – the moth was drawn to me.

Earlier at a butterfly farm, I had been thrilled about brilliant neon-blue morpho butterflies and their intricately marked, owllike eyes.

Although I admired the qualities of the moth – its ability to feel, smell, taste, and determine temperatures with its feathery antennae – I might not have noticed such a humble Lepidoptera among all the glorious butterflies. I had never been so close to such a creature, and I decided to make the most of this unique dining opportunity.

From the butterfly farm, I knew tropical Lepidoptera liked slightly rotting fruits. I ordered a slice of overripe banana and arranged for a separate plate for my own food, so we would not disrupt the moth.

Both Ron and I watched its every move, wondering what the wiggling antennae signaled. What was it feeling or smelling? What was the proboscis seeking? Why was it standing with one leg on the plate and the other three on the table?

"It would be interesting if we observed people this closely," Ron said.

We did observe that the couple next to us was casting quizzical glances our way. I introduced them to the moth. The woman looked squeamish. "How do you know what it wants?" she asked.

Perhaps the joy was that we simply did not know. We had just been reminded of how much we don't know about the workings of the universe by two days of touring the rain forest.

We learned about the minuscule bluejeans frogs that laid their eggs in the leaf cups of bromeliads – and then painstakingly transported each of the hundreds of tadpoles (sometimes up to 700) to the safety of a higher leaf.

We saw the organization, persistence, and strength of the leaf-cutter ants, marching in long columns with bright bits of leaf, and we marveled at the sheer velocity of the hummingbirds.

Each of these encounters had reminded us of the large mysteries in the smallest of creatures.

The waiter arrived with one half of a ripe banana, still in its skin. I peeled a piece for "my" moth and set it on my plate. The moth was instantly alert, its movements heightened. I moved the slice close, and the moth hugged the fruit between its legs.

The proboscis evidently found a succulent spot near the bottom of the slice and probed happily. At one point, the moth fell over as if drunk, barely hanging onto the plate with one shaky leg. We watched eagerly, delighted as the moth righted itself, renewed its clutch on the banana, and began probing again.

When our meal was over, I was not ready to leave my moth. We asked the head waiter if we could return the plate later, and he reluctantly agreed.

I carefully carried the plate to our room and out onto our balcony. Several times during the night, I checked on the moth, only to find it glued to the same spot.

At 3 a.m., the browning banana slice was there but the moth had gone. I felt an instant sense of loss. It had been an honor being that close to a wild creature. I felt as if I had been invited to experience a wonder of nature, and I wondered what the moth's visit had meant.

During the rest of our journey we saw butterflies, birds, and animals more beautiful and more flamboyant than my moth. But something stayed with me from my unusual dinner guest – a sense of joy, fascination, and curiosity, and a willingness to look more closely at things that appeared ordinary.

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