There is much to be said about the Luna Moth (Actias luna). This insect is perhaps one of the most emblematic species of moths in the world; revered for its beauty – and a cultural icon. The moths are stunning, with their hind wing tails, and fluorescent color that ranges from yellow-green to a more pale mint-green.
This species is found in the eastern half of the United States of America, portions of Canada, and a tiny part of Mexico – a considerable variety of climates and environment considering how much latitude they cover – although it is rarely found west of the Rocky Mountains & great plains (they act as a geographical species barrier for many organisms) and does seem to be restricted to the eastern half of the U.S.A.
This species is found in woody areas. What does that mean? It mostly means forests – deciduous woodlands, in particular. But in some instances also parks and suburban areas; important is that there are enough trees to sustain them.
The caterpillars of this species can only develop themselves on particular species of trees; their host plants commonly include Birch tree (Betula sp.), Sweetgum (Liquidambar sp.), Hickory (Carya sp.), Walnut (Juglans sp.), Maple (Acer sp.), Cherry (Prunus sp.), Sycamore (Platanus sp.), Willows (Salix sp.), Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and more. The host plants they are regionally dependent on, vary with latitude [as does the occurrence of said plant species so that makes sense].
For example it is said that in the north they heavily rely on birch (Betula sp.) to the point of it being one of their main host plants, whereas they mainly use hickory, walnut, and oak (Carya & Juglans & Quercus) on middle latitudes, whereas in the south they rely more on persimmon (Diospyros sp) and sweetgum (Liquidambar) towards the south. That being said – nothing is written in stone considering the fact the larvae are quite polyphagous and readily consume various kinds of [deciduous] trees and shrubs and the species has the proclivity to use whatever is locally available.
The flight time of the moths tends to vary – in the north (Canada & uttermost northern USA) they tend to have mostly just one generation per year (cocoons almost always hibernate) whereas in the south they can have 2-3 broods. It seems that there is a lot of plasticity when it comes to their hibernation habits, based on the local environment. In countries with shorter summers and longer (and colder) winters, environmental cues drive them to produce one (1) generation; with perhaps a more rare partial second (2) generation in optimal weather conditions (the warmest summers). Whereas in subtropical climates (Florida, Louisiana) flight data could suggest they have up to four (4) annual broods!
You can imagine that because of this, their flight time also varies per location. Generally speaking however, the moths are spotted from spring to late summer, with cocoons hibernating in winter [Generalised flight time; usually between April-August].
The caterpillars are bright (lime) green. Their tubercles vary in color and are sometimes even absent. When they are present they can be green, pink, orange, to pale grey(ish). The caterpillars ‘face’ (head capsule) also varies from brown to green.
How to breed Luna Moths? This insect is commonly raised, sold and traded in the U.S.A. – several websites offer cocoons or eggs. Why you ask? Well, they simply make popular pet insects. Their incredible beauty, combined with their ubiquitousness, versatile dietary requirements, and the fact they are quite easy to breed in captivity, makes them a good choice for anyone willing to study moths in captivity.
- Difficulty rating: Easy – Easy in all regards and suited for beginners.
- Rearing difficulty: 3/10 (From egg to pupa)
- Pairing difficulty: 4/10 (Achieving copulations)
- Host plants: Birch tree (Betula sp.), Sweetgum (Liquidambar sp.), Hickory (Carya sp.), Walnut (Juglans sp.), Maple (Acer sp.), Cherry (Prunus sp.), Sycamore (Platanus sp.), Willows (Salix sp.), Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and more: also reared on Eucalyptus sp., Corylus (hazel), Poplar tree (Populus sp.) – Click Here for a very comprehensive food plant list! For captive rearing, highly recommended are Liquidambar (Sweetgum) and Betula (Birch).
- Natural range: North America (Eastern USA), south- eastern Canada and a very small part of Mexico (Rio Bravo).
- Polyphagous: yes, very!
- Generations: Between 1 generation (most northern latitudes) to over 4 (most southern latitudes) generations based on environmental cues. Multivoltine.
- Family: Saturniidae (silkmoths)
- Pupation: Cocoon (silk encasing)
- Prefered climate: Temperate
- Wingspan: 90 – 110m (medium)
- Binomial name: Actias luna (Linnaeus, 1758)
The eggs of Actias luna will easily hatch on room temperature if kept in a plastic container, or petri dish. Within 10 to 15 days expect many babies to burst out! The first instars are variable; there seems to be a green form and a black/green form. They can easily be raised by beginners looking for a fun pet insect! Keep the petri dish round room temp. Misting with water is optional but don’t overdo it (eggs and baby caterpillars can drown in small droplets of water). A small amount of humidity is beneficial but not strictly necessary unless you have a very dry indoor environment.
The first star (and preferably only the first instar) can be raised in airtight plastic boxes, with moisture absorbing paper towel on the bottom of the container. This makes it easier to clean, and absorbs the excess moisture the leaves will evaporate (yes, make sure to add some host plant leaves). Some of the best plants to raise them on are sweetgum and birch. Transfer the baby caterpillars with a paint brush or something soft and gentle (using your fingers may end up crushing them!).
The first instars of Actias luna often rest in a J-like position (with their head curved backwards). Larvae are pure green or black/green.
Once the larvae molt, they become a little bit bigger – and plain green with yellowish ‘warts’ (tubercles) that have fine hairs.
When you notice they’ve entered the second instar, it’s time to act! You see, the bigger larvae don’t appreciate being reared in airtight plastic boxes. It’s much too humid for them. It only works for the first instars, that prefer higher humidity.
The second instars could be raised in rearing sleeved or insect pop-up cages. In pop-up cages, I stick cuttings of food plant in bottles of water (or empty soda cans filled with water) in order to keep the host plant fresh (like flowers, in a vase!). Make sure the caterpillars cannot crawl inside the container and drown (close the opening with paper towel or aluminium foil).
This is the setup you can keep using until they are pretty much fully grown. Make sure to keep fully grown larvae in bigger enclosures since they need more space. Caterpillars do not like to be overcrowded; and overcrowding is one of the major causes of infections and diseases in captivity. In the wild, larval density is quite low compared to captivity! When too many large individuals share a small enclosure, viruses and bacteria take advantage. Make sure to keep the cage clean; replace food plant every 2-3 days.
Rearing the caterpillars in the third and fourth instar is very straightforward. Give plenty of food plant per larva. Clean the cage every days too so droppings can’t accumulate.
When relocating the larvae, use scissors and cut the twigs or leaves they are sitting on and relocate them. Never pull or force caterpillars off the branches; their grip is so strong, that pulling them off can injure them.
All the caterpillars shown on this page are being reared on sweetgum (Liquidambar).
This species tolerates a wide range of temperatures; from chilly (18C) to higher temperatures (25C). Generally they do fine on room temperature but if kept warmer, the larvae will grow much faster.
The fifth instar can be very beautiful, with bright pink tubercles! Note; not all larvae are tubercles (some larvae lack them and are simply plain green)!. In some cases, the tubercles can also be yellow, orange or brownish.
Congratulations! The larvae should be fully grown in about 1.5 to 2 months time (depending on temperature and nutrition).
When the larvae are truly ready to spin cocoons – they can turn orange! This is called ‘prepupal camouflage’. You see, in order to find the perfect place to spin a cocoon the caterpillar will wander very far; often over the tree bark, or sometimes even crawling on the floor. They will often spin cocoons on branches, in leaf litter on the ground, or between the leaves on their host plants. Now you can imagine, while their green camouflage is an advantage in the vegetation, it is a disadvantage when the larvae leave said vegetation! So by turning brown/orange, they are better camouflaged during the crucial moment they leave the vegetation and wander around.
When spinning the cocoons, they tend to be transparent and pale white. But over time, the cocoons turn dark brown.
The silk is rather thin and crispy; almost like baking paper. Tip: before you discard any old host plant, check very carefully! The cocoons can be very well-hidden in the vegetation, even in captivity. By sticking leaves together with silk, they can create a small cavity inside the foliage in which they sneakily spin cocoons that are totally hidden from sight. Don’t accidentally discard cocoons!
Will your cocoons hatch soon or hiberate? Well, the answer to that is complicated because the moths use environmental cues to determine if they want to hibernate or not (day length, temperatures, brood).
Generally speaking, cocoons of the moths hibernate in autumn and winter. In captivity, it is a good idea to keep them warm from March to about October. After that, it’s recommended to store them cold (around 5C). This can be outdoors in winter (in a well isolated container), in a cold basement, or even in a fridge. Note: if you decide to use the fridge, know that it can dry out pupae very fast – always place the cocoons in an airtight container before refrigerating them so that no evaporation occurs.
If kept warm in winter, there is a chance the moths will hatch anyways (in some subtropical places, such as Louisiana, the moths barely hibernate). There is a lot of plasticity when it comes to their life cycle. For example in very northern latitudes (Canada) they often just produce one (1) brood per year; whereas they produce 2-3 broods a year in the southern USA. This species adjusts itself to the local conditions.
Congratulations if you made it so far! And now the waiting game begins. The cocoons are honestly easy to take care of. They are quite robust and tolerate harsh cold and strong heat. Indoors they can be hatched in a pop-up cage, preferably when laid on top of a towel or other surface that’s slightly humid (moss). Spraying them with water once in a while could help them a little.
In case of hibernation; place the cocoons outdoors if you live in a place with a decent winter season [or in a plastic container in a refridgerator]. Around 5C is the best.
Don’t be shocked if they rattle – luna moth cocoons are a bit hyperactive, and the pupae can twitch to make a rattling noise!
And before you know, incredible moths emerge.
Congratulations! You’ve done it. You reared one of the most incredible insects on the planet; the luna moth. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Indeed, these moths are very short lived – like all species of silkmoths – and their lifespan is between 7 to 14 days.
Males and females are somewhat similar – but not entirely – the males seem to have a smaller wing surface area, smaller wingspan, and while the difference is subtle, their color is brighter. Females are more pale, and have a bigger surface area, and much thicker abdomen. And most importantly, males have large feathered antennae, while females have thinner, more string-like (but still slightly feathered) antennae.
Their beauty does not last long – when they are several days old, they tend to break off their tails and even shred their wings.
Just one step remains; pairing! But there’s good news – pairing these moths is very easy. It’s a simple as putting a male and female together in an enclosure made from netting, and leaving them undisturbed in the darkness for a night or two.
It’s hard to know for sure when your moths have mated! Why? Because they mate at night.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the male and female will remain attached after having mated up until the next morning.
Congratulations! Now the females will lay 80 – 120 eggs (or more?) over the span of a few days. The eggs are easily collected – and the life cycle begins anew! We also have a rearing tutorial on YouTube:
How to breed luna moths? We can also show you YouTube tutorial today! How to breed the luna moth:
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Citations: Coppens, B. (2022); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications]
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