Saturnia pyri — “Giant peacock moth”

Saturnia pyri, the Giant Peacock Moth is one of the largest species of moth that can be found in Europe. This gorgeous insect is found in Mediterranean Europe and the warm parts of continental Europe (France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Hungary, Czechia, Greece, the Balkans, Switzerland, Ukraine and a part of Russia) into western Asia and the Middle East (Azerbadijan, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Iraq) and the coastline of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria). Here the insect survives in woodland and open shrubland and dry steppes where it produces one generation a year (cocoons always hibernate). Larvae feed on several kinds of woody, deciduous trees and shrubs; adults appear between March and June.

Saturnia pyri male

In the wild, this species is quite polyphagous and associated with open shrublands and woodlands, where the larvae feed on numerous plant species. Some of their favorites appear to be Rosaceae, including wild pear (Pyrus communis), wild apple (Malus sp.), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), sweet cherry (Prunus avium), almonds (Prunus dulcis) and more. However, their appetite is not limited to Rosaceae and larvae are also found on olive (Olea europea), willow (Salix), walnut (Juglans), elm (Ulmus), maple (Acer), alder (Alnus), plane (Platanus), poplar (Populus), and a little known fact that in some some parts of their range they even use Liquidambar orientalis (native to Turkey). Clearly, they are moderately opportunistic and can choose to use many types of deciduous woody trees/shrubs. It is the largest member of the genus Saturnia (Schrank, 1802).

Saturnia pyri; final instar larva (L5)

The larvae are large and quite colourful. They prefer dry heat.

Saturnia pyri, male
Saturnia pyri, male

In captivity, these moths are sometimes bred by insect enthousiasts. Since it is a large insect that is not difficult to raise, they are somewhat populair in the silkmoth breeding community.

  • Difficulty rating: Average – This rating means that this species is not hard to breed, but you will need some experience
  • Rearing difficulty: 6/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 3/10 (Achieving copulations)
  • Host plants: Rosaceae, including wild pear (Pyrus communis), wild apple (Malus sp.), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), sweet cherry (Prunus avium), almonds (Prunus dulcis) and more. However, their appetite is not limited to Rosaceae and larvae are also found on olive (Olea europea), willow (Salix), walnut (Juglans), elm (Ulmus), maple (Acer), alder (Alnus), plane (Platanus), poplar (Populus), and a little known fact that in some some parts of their range they even use Liquidambar orientalis (native to Turkey). In captivity they can feed on even more plants such as hawthorn (Crataegus). Liquidambar styraciflua, Rhus typhina (sumac)
  • Natural range:  Mostly Southern / Mediterranean Europe, extending into parts of the Middle East. France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Czechia, Hungary, Georgia, Romania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbadijan, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Libanonnorth coast of Algeria and Morocco,
  • Polyphagous: yes (but only coniferous trees)
  • Generations: Univoltine (one brood per year only; cocoons hibernate until next spring)
  • Family: Saturniidae (silkmoths)
  • Pupation: Cocoon (silk encasing)
  • Prefered climate: Temperate, mediterranean, continental climate
  • Special notes: The first instars can be kept humid; the final instars like to be warm, dry and ventilated.
  • Estimated wingspan: 80mm – 170mm (males smaller than females; but it is a large species – one of the largest in Europe)
  • Binomial name: Saturnia pyri (Denis & Schiffermüller, 1775)
Baby Saturnia pyri hatching!

The eggs of Saturnia pyri are easy to hatch. Place them in a plastic container or petri dish, and wait about 10-15 days. That’s all they need! Keep the temperature above 18C (preferably 21C+) for optimal development.

The first two instars look very similar. They are black with red tubercules. They can be raised in plastic boxes, or insect pop-up cages; important is that fresh cuttings of food plant are provided.

Personally when I raise this species, I prefer to use cherry (Prunus), sweetgum (Liquidambar), or apple/mear (Pyrus/Malus). Keep their containers clean and change the food every few days.

Saturnia pyri L1 (first instar)

The second instar looks like L2 but larger, and with brighter tubercules!

Saturnia pyri L1 + L2
Saturnia pyri L2

In instar number three (L3) the larvae become more distinct. They are pale green with bright yellow tubercules; and a variable level of black melanic spots. From this instar and beyond, I tend to move them from plastic boxes into well-ventilated cages. In this instar the larvae also develop long, dark hairs with broad tips!

Saturnia pyri L3
Saturnia pyri L3
Breeding cages

A good setup is a pop-up insect cage, that contains a can or a bottle of water – and inside the can or bottle, we place a cutting of the food plant.

The caterpillars of Saturnia pyri remind me of a ‘gobstopper’ (a candy that changes colour) – for the larvae have a new, unique appearance every instar! While the tubercules are bright yellow in L3, in L4 they become a beautiful hyacinth pink/purple/violet shade. Their caterpillars are gorgeous!

The caterpillars in this caresheet were raised on Salix, Liquidambar and Crataegus (pictures from various rearings in the past).

Saturnia pyri L4
Saturnia pyri L4

It’s really incredible how the colour of Saturnia pyri changes each instar. From yellow, to purple, to blue! In L5, the tubercules become light blue (the kind of blue you’d associate with a baby boy). In this instar, the larvae can grow quite large.

This species likes warm temperatures (atleast 21C+) and dry, ventilated air. Make sure to keep them clean! While this species is not hard to raise, they can be prone to infections if kept too humid or poorly ventilated. It helps to desinfect the enclosures (optional).

Saturnia pyri L5
Saturnia pyri L5
Saturnia pyri L5

Once the larvae are fully grown they will spin cocoons. The cocoons are quite robust, rigid, oval in shape, and have a brown “wooly” appearance and are often spun against branches or tree bark. In captivity they will decide to spin cocoons on the branches of their food plant, but also in the corners of their enclosure.

Saturnia pyri is univoltine; the cocoons of this species must always hibernate before moths appear from them. Store the cocoons cold in winter; this can be done outdoors or in a basement or even a fridge. Temperatures around 5C-7C are optimal. This species is very cold hardy, and can be found in Ukraine where winter temperatures can reach to -15C at night; yet the insects manage to hibernate as cocoons.

Saturnia pyri spinning a cocoon
Saturnia pyri cocoons
Saturnia pyri fresh cocoons

The cocoons of Saturnia pyri must hibernate. Always. No exceptions! This univoltine species produces just one brood per year. This means that in captivity (and in the wild) they must experience a prolonged period of cold temperatures. After (and only after!) the cocoons have been stored under low temperatures for several months the pupae will start developing into moths once they warm up. Personally I store them outdoors, in my homecountry the Netherlands – from November to March. Temperatures are as low as -10C and as high as 15C in winter. After warming them up in spring; moths eclose from the pupae.

Saturnia pyri female

Enjoy your beautiful moths! The imagoes of Saturnia pyri have a lifespan of 7 to 14 days most of the time. That’s a short time considering how long it takes to raise them! In captivity however, they pair very easily, and readily lay hundreds of eggs.

Saturnia pyri friends
Closeup of the beautiful eyespots

It’s easy to notice when the moths are pairing; when they are copulating, their abdomens are attached.

Saturnia pyri pairing

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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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