Mission mothpossible: Save moth eggs

Every night after dark, lights switch on automatically at the front of our townhouse. When we walk outside in the morning in the spring and summer months, we often find moths and other insects that were attracted to the lights in the night.

Unfortunately, many of them die after crashing into the walls. We find a lot of beetles, upside down, legs kicking slowly. We scoop them up and take them to a grassy, shady area but even if we put them down right-side up, they don’t walk properly and they often flip themselves back over.

That’s what might have happened to the moth I found in front of our townhome a few days ago. I saw what looked like a large dry leaf on the sidewalk. I almost didn’t check it because I thought it was way too big to be a moth or bug. It turned out to be the second biggest moth I’ve ever seen, about as big as half of the palm of my hand. I later found help to identify it as a four-spotted ghost moth.

Clearly, there was something wrong. It flapped its wings so hard I could hear a buzzing sound as it beat itself onto the unforgiving sidewalk, trying to take off. It was getting later in the morning and the heat was starting to radiate off the sidewalk, making it uncomfortably warm. After a mighty effort to fly off the moth stopped and lay still on the sidewalk.

Then its abdomen began vibrating. It took me a while to realize what was happening. This was a female moth and it was laying eggs. I wasn’t sure why this mama moth couldn’t fly but I knew she must have no other choice if she was laying eggs on a hot sidewalk, located between a row of townhomes and a parking lot.

I attempted to identify the moth using inaturalist but was unsuccessful. I later realized she looked different from the photos on the app because she’d been beating herself so hard on the sidewalk she’d rubbed off a lot of the fur-like scales around her head.

That’s when I thought of looking for a Minnesota-specific Facebook group for insects or perhaps moths. I’d recently joined a Minnesota foraging group and a Minnesota rockhound group on Facebook so I thought maybe there are groups for people in Minnesota like me, obsessed with insects and moths. A quick search proved there was such a group, Minnesota Moths & Butterflies, so I joined, posted photos, a video and an explanation. A member of the group, a naturalist, quickly answered me with an identification and the moth’s host trees, alders, willows and poplars.

By this time I’d been back and forth, from inside the house from where I was on the computer searching for help and then back out on that hot sidewalk, many times. I alternated between watching over mama moth and trying to figure out what to do. As the day wore on the shadow she was in by the building disappeared and she crawled quite a distance to lay in the small amount of shade made by our vehicle. At that point I decided to gently scoop her into a small plastic bin with a piece of paper. She didn’t even try to get away from me but was still alive and continued to lay eggs into the container periodically.

The naturalist told me it would be OK to put her under a host tree and that if any caterpillars hatched out of the eggs she was laying they would climb up to the tree to feed on the leaves. So that’s what I did.

When I put my piece of paper into the bin to scoop her back out and onto the ground, mama moth crawled on herself with very little encouragement from me. I don’t know what her motivation was, perhaps she was too exhausted to fight back, but I hoped she somehow understood I was trying to help in my clumsy human way.

I laid her in a wooded area behind our townhouse, under an alder tree. After taking a few more photos I walked away. As I did I turned my head back and saw her abdomen was vibrating again. She was laying more eggs in the shade and dirt under the tree. Even if none of the eggs survive, certainly I know mama couldn’t survive and it may be she was at the end of her life cycle anyway, at least they didn’t die together on a hot sidewalk.

The morning this happened I was supposed to be working from home, writing a freelance story assignment. Instead, I spent about two hours, off and on, observing mama moth, identifying her and eventually putting her under a host tree. I’m glad I could do something for her, a fellow mama doing all she could for her babies, even if it threw my morning into chaos. I feel for her deeply, as another mama battling for a safe and healthy future for my child.

Goodbye, mama four-spotted ghost moth. You did everything you possibly could. I’m sorry you got hurt. I hope some of your babies survive under that alder tree.

If you’d like to see video and photos of mama moth laying eggs you can watch a short TikTok I posted. For more information about four-spotted ghost moths, read more here.