Monday, 18 July 2016

Pink and green elephants

In a period of time that seems to be dominated by nothing but bad news, I’ll break with the trend and post some good news, albeit on a very small local and personal scale.... The successful emergence and release of an Elephant Hawkmoth in our care for 9 months. 

In summary;

29/08/2015 Caterpillar found munching through a garden Fuchsia, nearly fully grown.
01/09/2015 Caterpillar stops eating and settles to pupate, pupa moved to garage to overwinter a couple of days later.

Sept 2015 through to May 2016 ------Looooooooong wait----- (regular checks and occasional misting with water to stop pupa drying out)

01/05/2015 Cold snap finally lifts, pupa brought back into warmth of the house
15/05/2015 Pupa still very much alive - twitches when covering of leaves removed
29/05/2016 Moth emerges from chrysalis
30/05/2016 Moth released 

Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar

In an earlier blog post I’d written about an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar that we found on our garden fuchsia and relocated to a ‘butterfly cage’ stocked with another of this caterpillar’s favourites - Rosebay Willowherb. This was back in August 2015. (The butterfly cage was something bought by my son at a school fete many years ago and I'd always kept, just in case....) Unlike some of the other members of the hawkmoth family, they do not pupate in the soil, instead they use the leaf litter – another good reason (as if one was needed) to not overly tidy a garden in autumn. It wasn’t many days before the caterpillar newly in our care stopped eating and motored around looking for a suitable place to pupate before finally weaving together with silk a loose covering of leaves... and pupating. The pupae was duly left undisturbed and put into the garage (the coolest sheltered place we have) for the winter with just an occasional light misting of water to stop it from drying out. 

A sudden twitch - still very much alive in there!
Come the spring and warmer weather in early May the pupae was brought back into the warmth of the house for the adult moth to hopefully emerge. A weekend away had been planned and after a few weeks in the warmth the moth still hadn’t hatched. At this point, I was starting to wonder if everything was ok in there - the adult moths are on the wing between May and July, May was already nearing its end. Carefully pulling back the leaves which were covering the pupae I was pleased to see the previously hidden, perfectly formed pupae. It didn’t take long to realise it was still alive – the disturbance caused the pupae to twitch... I thought I was imagining things, but sure enough the abdomen would suddenly twitch to the side in response to the disturbance and presumably perceived threat. No doubt showing my ignorance here but I wrongly thought that a solid-looking pupae like this would be pretty immobile! The weekend we’d booked away arrived and with still no sign of the moth emerging it was transported to my parents’ to be babysat for the weekend – having looked after the pupae for 9 months and counting I thought it would be just my luck if it emerged while we were away, I really didn’t want to come back to a dead moth. I’d read that in the days just before hatching the pupae takes on a slight pinkish hue... and I was sure I could see some pink there....

Butterfly rearing 'cage'
We went away and so a text duly came - “Moth has hatched, instructions please!”. A call with instructions followed and it’s no exaggeration to say that after all this time I was keen to get back to see the newly emerged moth we’d looked after for the past 9 months.  Luckily for me, it takes several hours for them to be ready to fly following emergence. It’s important that they have space to let their wings properly unfurl and stretch out as they are pumped full of body fluids and to dry out - a selection of sticks had been put into the butterfly cage for this purpose but in the event the moth just climbed up the side of the cage and stayed put there instead. 

By the time we got back the wings were fully outstretched and the beautiful colours were apparent, the elephant hawkmoth being one of our most vibrantly coloured of moths in the UK with olive green with pink markings above and solid magenta below – perfect to camouflage itself amongst the caterpillar’s foodplants of willowherbs and fuchsias. I had hoped I’d be able to get lots of macro photos of the processes of emergence and the stage of drying out and pumping out the wings but in the circumstances that wasn’t to be... but we were very happy at having had a successful rearing and emergence of this striking insect.

Adult Elephant hawkmoth

The release came after dark, when we were satisfied that the Blackbird family (which were busy feeding a nest of chicks in one of our hedges) had gone to bed, and we couldn’t see any of the pipistrelle bats that sometimes hunt in and around our garden. (Maybe a hawkmoth would be too big for them, but I didn’t want to take any chances!) After a little gentle persuasion the moth started his/her wings buzzing, warming up the flight muscles for several seconds before finally taking its slow and steady maiden flight like a tiny helicopter before disappearing into the moonlit darkness.

The empty chrysalis

Finally a quick reminder that in the UK the Big Butterfly count has started and continues until August 7th. Just spend 15 minutes on a warm sunny day in your garden, a park, or anywhere you might see some butterflies and submit any sightings to Big Butterfly count. The weather so far this year hasn't done them many favours but hopefully sightings will pick up over the remainder of summer.

Holly Blue in the garden (taken in spring)