Epicopeia hainesii — “Mock swallowtail butterfly moth”

Epicopeia hainesii is a moth from the genus Epicopeia found in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The adults very much resemble Papilionidae butterflies from genera Byasa/Atrophaneura, and at first sight even experts may confuse these butterflies and moths with eachother. However, the truth is more complicated. Research has shown evidence that it may not simply be a mimic, but also a model to butterflies. The co-evolutionary relationship between Epicopeia and Papilionidae has existed for millions of years and possibly benefits both species; it has been suggested that both Atrophaneura/Byasa butterflies and Epicopeia moths are toxic and unedible to predators because of the toxins they sequester from their respective host plants. This is described as “Müllerian mimicry, where two or more harmful species mutually advertise themselves as harmful.” The Chinese windmill, Byasa alcinous is said to be the main species of butterfly that has served as both model and mimic for Epicopeia hainesii. The ecology of Epicopeia hainesii and the family Epicopeiidae are both very understudied and not fully understood.

Epicopeia hainesii, female, resting

The caterpillars of Epicopeia hainesii feed on Cornus sp. (dogwood) only – Cornus controversa, Cornus kousa are used in the wild but in captivity nearly any type of Cornus is accepted. The caterpillars of Epicopeia hainesii  have wax producing glands on their bodies that eventually, as they continuously keep producing wax, envelops most of their body and will form a thick layer. This big thick wax layer possibly protects their bodies from attacks of several types of predators and parasites, and also makes them hydrophobic and thus more resistant to precipitation. Possibly because the exact function of the wax has not been confirmed by science. Another advantage that their waxy appearance may grant them is that it resembles the appearance of many other wax producing insects such as wooly aphids, mealybugs, scale insects and more, and some predators may avoid them for that reason. When they are fully grown, caterpillars fold the leaves of their host plant together and spin a well-hidden cocoon inside the leaf. The silk of the cocoon is completely coated with wax. The pupae decides to either hatch the same year, or overwinter. Caterpillars have a gland on the left side of their thorax that continuously secretes a transparent yellow substance; this is likely to be a defensive chemical although the exact nature of it is unconfirmed. When the caterpillars resting or inactive, they will curl up in a specific way that allows their waterproof bodies to capture this chemical in a small cavity. Over time it will build up and form a droplet. The caterpillars are solitary but tolerate eachother in quite high densities.

Caterpillar of Epicopeia hainesii

The adult moths of Epicopeia hainesii are active during the day. More specifically, they have two short periods of activity during the day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They mainly become active in warm sunny conditions with low light intensity, such as around sunrise and sundawn. During the remainder of the day, between morning and evening, the moths are inactive, but will rest on the vegetation in plain sight. However, even if they are not active during most of the day,  they are still rather quick to fly away if disturbed for any reason. It seems that during their period of inactivity, they are still somewhat awake and aware of their surroudings, despite not moving for hours if left undisturbed.  The moths have a functional proboscis and visit flowers to drink nectar, and can be observed visiting many types of flowering plants. In captivity they can be offered substitutes such as honey, juice or fruits, although they need some help with finding these food sources – they  will not be automatically attracted to them, and seem to be somewhat visually oriented to locate flowers. Superficially, both their behaviour and appearance as adults is quite similar to that of butterflies.

Epicopeia hainesii, male, drinking honey from a stick

In the evening the females will release pheromone that attracts males. This is often combined with ‘drumming’ behaviour – females will flap their wings in a rapid motion, while still clinging to the surface in order not to lift off, in short but powerful intervals.  This probably generates wind that helps disperse the pheromone. Males will attach themselves to the females with their claspers, and the pairs remain coupled for a few hours. Females deposit eggs on the underside of Cornus leaves, preferably in small batches near the leaf veins.

  • Difficulty rating: Moderate – Not hard but you need some experience. Breeding them is more like breeding butterflies than moths. They also have a lot of requirements such as: sunlight, nectar and fresh (live)host plant that most other moths do not have, so they are more demanding than the average moth. However, if you can give this to them, it is easy to produce hundreds of them with no effort. 
  • Rearing difficulty: 6.5/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 6.5/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants: Cornus sp. (dogwood) only – Cornus controversa, Cornus kousa in the wild but in captivity nearly any type of Cornus. 
  • Natural range: Korea, Japan, Taiwan
  • Polyphagous: No
  • Generations: Multivoltine  
  • Family:  Epicopeiidae
  • Pupation:  Silk cocoons spun in leaves, covered with wax
  • Prefered climate:  Temperate to subtropical
  • Special notes:  This moth requires sunlight, nectar or similar food, and host plant in order to lay eggs and pair. 
  • Wingspan: 50-60mm  
  • Binomial name: Epicopeia hainesii (Holland, 1889)

The eggs of Epicopeia hainesii are round, pale white to pinkish depending on their age, and about one millimetre in seize. The females deposit them preferably on the underside of the leaves of Cornus, often around the leaf veins. The eggs generally hatch in 7 to 12 days, depending on the temperature.

Eggs of Epicopeia hainesii

After hatching, the caterpillars of Epicopeia hainesii are only a few millimetres small, pale white and appear to look slightly ‘maggot’ like. They will rest on the the leaf veins, where they are quite well camouflaged and blend in with the whitish leaf veins. From there they will take bites out of the surface or in some cases from the edge of the leaf. As they eat they become slightly more transparent and greenish, making it hard to spot them.

First instar of Epicopeia hainesii

First instar of Epicopeia hainesii

The first and second instar look quite similar. However, from the third instar and beyond the caterpillars begin to produce wax. As time passes, more and more wax will build up on their bodies, and eventually it will envelop most of their body. This gives them an appearance similar to mealybugs or wooly aphids. In captivity they can be raised in plastic boxes up until the third instar, but from that point they require airflow so are best moved to a cage or rearing sleeve.

Epicopeia hainesii third instar

Epicopeia hainesii third instar

Fourth instars and beyond definitely require a lot of fresh air. They need to be placed in ventilated boxes with the lid removed, in a rearing cage or a rearing sleeve. As the larvae grow they develop large waxy projections. When the caterpillars resting or inactive, they will curl up in a specific way that allows their waterproof bodies to capture this chemical in a small cavity. Over time it will build up and form a droplet. The caterpillars will feed during day and night.

Epicopeia hainesii fourth instar

Epicopeia rearing sleeve on Cornus

The caterpillars are easily raised within a rearing sleeve placed upon Cornus sp. (dogwood). They are fully grown, from egg to cocoon, in about 1.5 to 2 months time.

Epicopeia hainesii final instar

Epicopeia hainesii final instar

When fully grown, the caterpillars spin a  silk cocoon, that is usually hidden expertly between the leaves. They fold the leaves together and spin cocoons inside the cavities of these ‘closed’ folded up leaves; most of the time their cocoons are not exposed to the environment and completely hidden in the folded up leaves of the host plant, making it very difficult to find them unless you know what you are looking for.

Epicopeia hainesii cocoon

The cocoons of Epicopeia hainesii are snow white and completely coated with the white wax that used to cover the larvae.

Epicopeia hainesii cocoon 

Prepupal larva of Epicopeia hainesii removed from the cocoon; it has shed most of the wax

Prepupal larvae shed most of their wax and incorporate it in the silk. Inside the cocoon they form a brown pupa that is coated with powder.

Epicopeia hainesii final instar

Epicopeia hainesii seems to have two generations a year; a spring and a (mid)summer generation.  Cocoons from the spring (early) generation will hatch fast, in about a month time. The cocoons from the summer (late) generation will hibernate and hatch the next year in spring; they face winter in the cocoon stage.

In the evening, the adults will pair at dusk. Males can be seen clinging to females by their abdomens, attaching themselves with their claspers. The pairing lasts for several hours, but couples detach the same night.

Epicopeia hainesii pairing; the large female on top and small male below

Female will lay eggs during the morning/day and crawl over the Cornus and curl their abdomens to lay small clusters of pearly white eggs. Epicopeia will not lay eggs without host plants. Unlike many other types of moths featured on this website, they will not randomly lay or scatter their eggs inside the breeding cages; it is the taste and smell of their host plant that convinces females to start oviposition. In that regard, their setup needs to be very similar to that of butterflies; with sources of nectar or food available, fresh host plant, and sunlight.

Epicopeia hainesii ovipositing

Epicopeia hainesii cage with Cornus and sunlight

Epicopeia hainesii ovipositing

Feeding the adults of Epicopeia hainesii is not difficult, but must be done in order for them to reproduce, or the moths will starve before they have the ability to lay eggs or pair. In nature, these moths visit flowers, and one of the best ways to feed them is to include a few nectar-rich flowering plants inside their cage. A second possibility is to provide them a sugary liquid; this may include a mixture of honey and water, fruits, or juice. However please keep in mind that Epicopeia hainesii will not be attracted to this kind of bait; they are visually oriented, and  to attract them they require something colourful that resembles a flower. However, if they do happen to walk upon other sugary substances by random chance, they will drink it. My personal method was to take ripe strawberries, mash them into a paste, and to spread this paste all over the walls of their cage. This is however a very messy method, and perhaps less efficient than including flowers. But it did work really well; while the moths are not attracted to fruit by themselves, the chances of them walking upon the strawberry coated surface is high, and when they taste the liquid they will drink. Another method is to hang fruit on the top of their cage, or another place where they frequently hang out. Hungry moths will not come to the fruit to eat it automatically, but if they taste it by random chance, they will feed – so this method only works in a small enclosure where there is a reasonable chance they will walk over the fruit randomly. However, in large enclosures such as glass houses or big flight cages, the chance they will randomly walk over it is too small and they will starve; for such enclosures flowers are a requirement.

Epicopeia hainesii feeding on mashed strawberry (fruit)

Three subspecies are recorded:

  • Epicopeia hainesii tsushimana (Japan, Tsushima)
  • Epicopeia hainesii hainesii (Mainland Asia –  Korea, and Japan – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu)
  • Epicopeia hainesii matsumurai (Taiwan)

Interestingly, Taiwanese adults from ssp. matsumurai can have white adults instead of black adults, although the wing veins and edges remain black in that subspecies.

 

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