North America’s largest moth, cecropia, at Tree Pittsburgh and elsewhere |

North America’s largest moth, cecropia, at Tree Pittsburgh and elsewhere

Mary Ann Thomas
Courtesy of Joe Stavish/Tree Pittsburgh
Cecropia moth

Larger than a monarch butterfly but residing in the same realm of beauty, cecropia moths with wing spans of 5 to 7 inches are out and if you’re lucky, like the folks at Tree Pittsburgh, you might just spot one.

Tree Pittsburgh has a distinct advantage though.

The nonprofit tends to 13,000 to 14,000 trees on their Lawrenceville site. With such a diversity of trees, it’s no wonder that a cecropia caterpillar with an voracious appetite for a variety of tree and shrub leaves was found by a Tree Pittsburgh employee early last August.

“I thought we should protect it and raise it,” said Joe Stavish, community education coordinator, of Tree Pittsburgh.

“We don’t see the cecropia moth a lot — it’s large so it gets hit by cars. Large moths get eaten by house cats and screech owls.”

So Stavish and coworkers built a screened box around the potted tree where the caterpillar was found. By the end of the month, the caterpillar made its way to the corner of the box where it spun and crawled inside a silk cocoon.

Last Monday, the moth emerged and Stavish spotted it as it was still pumping blood through its wings preparing to take flight.

“Hopefully she’ll find a partner and lay eggs,” he said.

It’s hard to spot the cecropia moth as they are nocturnal but people can find them, according to Catherine Giles, curatorial assistant, Section of Invertebrate Zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

You might want to think about a wide swatch of areas, not honing in on any one specimen.

Alas, an individual cecropia moth’s life span is a mere one to two weeks in which time they look for a mate and propagate before they die, according to Giles.

The moths can be seen on the East Coast from May into August. They are attracted to lights, which is a good place to find them at night. See Giles video on light attraction.

The species is common and is found in cities and suburbs from Canada south through Florida and Texas.

Cecropia moth’s population numbers have been declining because, “as with many other insect species, due to both global climate change and parasites, mostly the tachinid fly Compsilura concinnata, which was first introduced to help control the invasive gypsy moth population,” Giles said.

Tree Pittsburgh will offer a free discussion on moths and trees and a trip to its nursery on July 24, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., in celebration of National Moth Week from July 20-28. Flashlight and RSVP required, register by visiting this link.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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