Have you ever experienced a very special moment that you still remember? Art Good has, and it changed his life. It happened when he was 6 years old – the day he discovered a big, beautiful cecropia moth.
As he was poking around in a wooded area behind his family's house, Mr. Good found the cocoon containing what would become a stunning creature.
"I didn't know what would emerge," he says. "I took it home out of pure curiosity. I put it in a desk drawer and kind of forgot about it." A month later, he discovered the just-emerged cecropia moth in that drawer.
"I opened this drawer and here was the most beautiful thing I ever did see," he says. "I remember it. It was after supper, and I had to go out and get something out of the drawer. That was just one of those moments."
More than 50 years have passed since then, and Mr. Good is still awed by cecropia moths. In fact, his interest in the insects is so great that he has spent more than 20 years raising and selling cecropia cocoons through his business, Cocoons for Kids.
He started his Cleveland-area company so that young people would have the same opportunity that he had to experience the wonder of nature.
More recently, he has explored how silk from the moth cocoons could be spun into thread for weaving.
It took Mr. Good 15 years to figure out how to raise cecropias through their four-stage metamorphosis – egg, larva, pupa, and adult – and keep them safe, but he finally did it.
Cocoons in the classroom
Marie Romano, an elementary-school science teacher in West New York, N.J., ordered cecropia moth cocoons so that her fifth-graders could learn about the moth's life cycle. Ms. Romano assumed moth cocoons would be as attractive as the monarch butterfly's chrysalis, another exhibit in her classroom. Instead, she says, the cocoons looked like dead leaves.
Inside the brown cocoons were pupae that had once been caterpillars. For more than six months, cecropia pupae remain in a resting state. Then, in their final four weeks late in spring, they transform into stunning moths. When the temperature has been warm long enough, the adult moths emerge.
And one day – voilà! – Ms. Romano and her students arrived at school and discovered that one of their cecropia moths had emerged in the classroom's container. The next day, another moth appeared, and then another, all boasting five- to seven-inch wingspans.
As word traveled, other students, teachers, and parents came to see the large, colorful moths in Ms. Romano's classroom.
"They said, 'Are you sure these are moths?' I said, 'Yeah, this is a moth.' They're just not used to it," Ms. Romano says.
The cecropias help connect children with their natural environment, says Charlene Ackerman. For 10 years, she and the teachers at the Paul K. Kennedy Child Care Center in North Chicago, Ill., have stored moth cocoons in insect cages.
"We've never seen it emerge," says Ms. Ackerman, who is the center's past executive director. "We watch and we watch and we wait and we hope and, then, all of sudden, there he is."
The 4- and 5-year-old children handle the moth at special times in the classroom and on the playground. They are fearless, Ms. Ackerman says.
That fearlessness would make Mr. Good proud. "I like to see the kids touch a cecropia," he says. "It's important that they get this physical attachment to it, to make it climb on their finger."
Ten-year-old Leah Benes has held the cecropia. "The feet stuck on to me," she says. "It kind of freaked me out at first, but I got used to it. It was heavy and a lot bigger than a butterfly."
Life and times of cecropias
Cecropias are one of the largest North American moths, based on wingspan and weight. "They're pretty widely distributed in North America from the East to the Rocky Mountains, says M. Deane Bowers, an entomologist and biology professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The moths are less commonly found in Florida, Texas, and west of the Rockies. They also live in Canada.
"Many of the kids (and adults) don't realize we have such showy moths out there," says Ric Bessin, an entomologist and extension professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. That's because the cecropia is mostly seen at night and only lives for one or two weeks.
"I consider it to be a common moth that we seldom see," Dr. Bessin says.
In spring or early summer, cecropia moths lay tiny, bead-shaped eggs – as many as 300 – on tree leaves or bushes. Larvae, or caterpillars, hatch two weeks later from four or five surviving eggs and immediately feed on those leaves. The caterpillars sport a different set of colors in each of the five growth stages, or instars, that they go through before they're ready to spin their cocoons.
In the meantime, they fatten up on the leaves of apple, maple, and other trees. Despite big appetites, the caterpillars aren't considered pests and pose no threat to orchards and wooded areas, Dr. Bessin says.
Fully grown caterpillars can be up to five inches long and are about as thick as the index finger of an average grown-up. Usually by late summer, they have spun the cocoons where they will remain until the next spring. When the moths emerge, they'll start the process all over again.
Mr. Good loves to speak about cecropia moths. In fact, as part of his work, he visits schools to tell kids all about the beautiful insect and its life cycle.
"Its body reminds me of a tarantula; the legs are kind of like a tarantula.... The legs and body are basically fire engine red.... If you shine a light on their eyes, they're this beautiful fluorescent pink," he says.
"The antennae, how bushy they are. It's kind of like an old man's eyebrows," he says with a laugh. "If this doesn't get somebody interested, they don't like nature."
Clearly, Mr. Good loves nature. And so do the kids he talks to at schools. They ask lots of questions. "Time flies with 20 children in a classroom," he says. "You can go through two or three hours in no time."
What is metamorphosis?
This is the moth's four-stage life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. It starts in the spring and lasts one year, until the next spring.
What is the difference between male and female cecropias?
The male has fuzzier antennae, which he uses to pick up the scent, or pheromone, released by the female as a part of the mating process.
"The females are typically bigger than the males as adults, because they're all filled up with eggs," says M. Deane Bowers of the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Where can I find a cecropia cocoon?
Try looking in a tree, three to four feet off the ground or higher. The cocoon, which is usually a brownish color, is built around a stick and nestled among the stems of small branches. If you don't see one up high, look on fences, old boards, rocks, or even houses or barns.
What are some differences between moths and butterflies?
Butterflies tend to be more colorful than moths, and moths are usually night fliers, but there are exceptions in both cases.
"In general, butterflies have either knobbed antennae or a little hook to their antennae," says Ric Bessin of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "Moths have threadlike, featherlike antennae."
Where can I learn more about cecropias?