“You wouldn’t believe how yucky the holly bushes are!” Sheila breezed into our office, bringing with her the silken presence of fresh air. It was still March and the air was chilly, but alive with the hope of the spring to come.
We diverted our attention from the disarray of papers and numbers littering the table and beheld our sister eying her hands distastefully. “Oh? Why?” we wondered, punching another figure into the calculator.
We listened distractedly as she expanded on the results of her trimming venture. “They’re black on the inside branches and full of dead leaves. There are even pockets that look like they could be full of worms!”
We raised our eyebrows but thought no further of it till Sheila stalled Dad on his way to work one morning. She showed him his neglect concerning his responsibility as the fungicide and pesticide caretaker on the property.
Dad made a calm inspection and added several types of plant food and spray to his mental shopping list.
Sheila wasn’t fully satisfied with that reaction. She pried the branches apart and directed his attention to the brown pouches with, “Look at these yucky things! I think there are worms in there.”
“Not worms,” Dad half chuckled. “That’s a cocoon of some kind.” He squished the pocket gently, and affirmed, “Definitely cocoons. You could cut those branches off, put them in a box, and see what happens.”
Our skepticism morphed into wary interest. The possibility of cocoons, especially three cocoons, put a smile into our nature lovin’ hearts. We all agreed that at least one needed to be transferred to the porch within wheelchair range, for four of us could not hover over the holly bushes for daily inspections. But the porch was the limit, you know, just in case…worms weren’t out of the picture yet.
Sheila spent a painstaking forenoon, extricating the cocoons from their less-than-desirable environment. She fashioned a box with notches for the sticks to rest in, and placed a grate on top for protection against predators.
Our closer inspections revealed some interesting details. The cocoons were at least 4 inches (10 cm) long and 2½ inches (6 cm) wide. They were identical in size though not in shape, and were soft, pliable, and covered with blackened holly leaves. When they were shifted, a slight movement inside assured us that the chrysalides were intact. Even the one with a tiny hole in the end promised to hatch a moth someday.
Further research proved our first guess was incorrect. It was not the luna moth. It appeared that we had three cecropia cocoons on our porch. However, our hopes plummeted slightly when we learned that there are cecropia mummies. What if we had three mummies?
(Cecropia mummies result from a parasitic Aleiodes wasp depositing eggs inside a caterpillar, killing the caterpillar, and making it appear to mummify.)
Days slid into weeks, and we did what our limited knowledge prompted us to. Since our box was under-roof, we misted the cocoons daily—when we remembered.
May turned into June while we see-sawed from hope to doubt and back again. Each day that passed cecropia-less, lowered our expectations considerably. We were no longer as watchful or as diligent, and we failed to remember our guests many times.
“When was the last time you gave these moths any attention,” Mom would ask as she eyed the “moth” stand that had once been home for her geranium planter. Somehow daily misting had turned into weekly dousing.
One dreary afternoon, Sheila perched on the arm of the glider rocker to perform her cocoon duties. “They’re really dry,” she said worriedly. She soaked the first one with water, shook it beside her ear, and then gently pressed on the cocoon to assure herself that the moth hadn’t flown away when we weren’t on vigil. Finished with the first one, she picked up the second and started her ministrations. She froze. Then just as quickly, she leaped upright and cried, “Something moved!”
We took turns holding it and listening. Something was moving every now and then, sending subtle vibrations from the cocoon. With a little imagination, it felt like the soft fluttering of wings. Our excitement went through the roof. We alerted a cousin who wanted to see them as soon as they emerged. We considered taking them along to Shade Mountain where we were going for supper.
For twelve hours our cecropia was hatching! Then out of that tiny hole came an earwig! And the cocoon fell silent.
It may have been our disappointment, or the knowledge that cecropias typically hatch in late May, that made us decide to take action. One morning we performed surgery to see what the inside of a ‘mummy cocoon’ looks like. Aided by a sharp scissors, we dissected the papery sac to disclose a fascinating tangle of loosely spun silk. We were discomfited to discover that inside the silk there was another much firmer cocoon. Sheila tore some of the threads away. When Dad felt it, he said, “It’s too light. There’s nothing in there.”
Hope is not easily defeated, and we hoped for that which we could not see. Just suppose the late spring delayed the hatching? We followed the advice of our cousin who suggested keeping them one more month. Our clumsy efforts to reassemble the cocoon were rather pathetic, but we did our best, and laid it in the box with the other two. We moved them from one end of the porch to the other, with the intention of spilling our adventure into the meadow in the near future.
The very last week of June arrived, and one fine, sunny Saturday Dwight walked in the door and said matter-of-factly, “Did you know two of your moths hatched?”
His siblings did not greet his discovery with the same kind of nonchalance. There was a verbal explosion. He had no rest until he had shuttled four wheelchairs out the door posthaste. To our amazement, two beautiful moths clung to the grate. Our first thought was that the dissected one had not hatched, but upon closer inspection we discovered that it had, and one of the others was the only leftover “mummy.” It was incredible to think that it had hatched despite our intrusions. We had already opened the cocoon for it, and we wondered if it had blinked in surprise when its entrance into the world was so simple.
We had never so closely examined a giant silk moth. Furry red and white bodies. Enormous colorful wings. Feathery antennae. A marvelous work.
Our cousin returned, and helped us identify them as males with their feathery antennae. Since they are nocturnal creatures, we made plans to wait till dark to release them.
At dusk, we removed the grate and waited for them to spread their wings, but they stayed, seemingly content where they were. After several minutes of inactivity, we coaxed them onto our fingers and found them to be gentle giants. They patiently allowed us to pass them from one hand to the next. It was delightful to feel their soft wings brush over our palms, and occasionally, when we startled or agitated them, they sprayed a clear liquid over the unlucky person who happened to be nearest.
Just as dusk was giving way to night, their great wings started quivering. They stirred restlessly, then took flight. We watched their gorgeous wings flutter against the night sky. Both of them took direct paths into the treetops.
We retired that day knowing we had witnessed a miracle that we might never experience again. So imagine our surprise when the third cecropia came to life a day later. Our Sunday afternoon visitors had just left when Conrad discovered miracle #3 in the very box we had been sitting beside for hours. Our chagrin at missing the actual hatching was swiftly replaced by awe.
This one was equally perfect and beautiful. We all crowded around the cardboard box that had been the base of so much wonder. It was a female this time, and the difference in the antennae was remarkable. The markings on her wings also varied slightly from those of the males.
Longing to share the adventure with someone, we loaded up Miss Moth and took her to Sheila’s house. She and her husband had just arrived home from a weekend of volunteering and were speechless when we arrived with a box and a handful of cecropia stories. We shared in their amazement as they gently transferred her to their fingers for closer scrutiny.
We urged them to keep her and see if she actually would attract males from miles around. We had read that the female cecropia releases a scent that the males’ feathery antennae detect from a distance. Keeping a female in captivity was supposed to be a sure way of attracting more cecropias to the property.
They checked at 10:00 that night, and again at 11:00. The little beauty seemed fully at ease in her confinement. At 2:00 in the morning, Sheila removed the cover and whispered, “Fly. Here’s your freedom.”
She expected that to be her last glimpse of the cecropia, but several hours later when they awoke for the day, Sheila stepped out onto the porch and saw a sight that banished all grogginess. Miss Moth had two friends. One fluttered hopefully over the box, and the second was inside.
Our cecropia female got her second car ride along with one of her friends. We were intrigued and happy to host them on our front porch for one more day.
Once again we grouped on the porch awaiting dusk. Once again we watched brilliant wings flutter into the night. Then we returned to a normal summer routine, refreshed by the miracles we had witnessed, with praise in our hearts to a God who created all things fearfully and wonderfully.