Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time can have humiliating or even catastrophic consequences. The story by Hans Christian Andersen comes to mind about the two tailoring conmen who promised the vain-glorious emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he doesn’t see any suit of clothes until an innocent child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!
And sometimes, being in the right place at the right time can leave one open-mouthed in wonder or delight! A couple of evenings ago, J and I arrived home from a delightful day hunting out orchids and tulips in village graveyards and mountain meadows with new friends and wound up with a very nice meal at one of our favourite riverside restaurants in the mountains. As I parked the car in the garage I spotted this:
A female Saturnia pyri the Giant or Viennese Emperor Moth aka Giant Peacock Moth. She had only just emerged from the pupae that had been fixed inside a nearby nest box and was in the process of ‘pumping-up’ her wings.
By next morning that part of the process was over. The female seldom flies at this pre-mating stage and so she hung there, under the overhang of the garage , conserving her energy and waiting for the night and the trysting hours. As twilight drew on she began emitting pheromones, a sort-of ‘Chanel No5’ on steroids and a real turn-on for any male Emperor Moth within a mile or so of this gorgeous creature.
The Saturniidae family are an interesting lot – adult females emerge with a complete set of mature ova and “call” males by emitting pheromones. Males can detect these chemical signals up to a mile away with help from sensitive receptors located on the tips of their feather-like antennae. The males fly several miles in one night to locate a female and mate with her; females generally will not fly until after they have mated.
The mouth-parts of adult saturniids are very small and basically useless and they lack digestive tracts so adults subsist on stored lipids acquired during the laval stage. Adult behaviour is devoted almost entirely to reproduction – life without food is short and sweet with a lifespan of a week or less after emergence.
Their distribution is across southern Europe and parts of Africa and Asia. In the UK you have the Lesser Emperor Saturnia pavonia which is smaller but a little more colourful.
So, from the egg there emerges a tiny, brownish caterpillar that then goes through a series of moults that transforms it from this:
After about five moults it then pupates inside a tough ‘box’ that it spins for protection. The connection with its close relative the silkworm is apparent.
. . from this the adult emerges and it starts all over again!
Anyway, back to our own story of romance and seduction! At some point during the hours of darkness, a knight in shining scales flew in, surfing the pheromonical airwaves that make Coco Chanel look a total amateur. There was, I’m sure a exchange of pleasantries before an exchange of a more compelling nature was mutually agreed upon. Come the morning light our amorous couple were oblivious to anything but each other.
. . let no man put asunder!
After the passion comes that suffused, floating feeling that every Emperor and Empress will only know once – unless they have genetic memory! Here they are, resting in the warm glow of a Westering sun.
As I write this they have flown up into the lower branches of our Oriental Plane tree and will no doubt be about the business of depositing the eggs of another generation of these beautiful creatures.
the sun shines through the wings of the slightly battered male
the female – great with eggs
These beautiful moths are very amenable to gentle, cautious handling – just putting my finger close to the female had her stepping across for a photo-shoot.
So, there you have it – a new suit of clothes for the Emperors that, in just a few days, will be just a story tale . . until next year.
Alan Fenn, in Incredible Okçular