Picture Ohio! – Royal Walnut Moths

Royal Walnut Moths Mating
Royal Walnut Moths Mating

Thanks to my friend and fellow photographer Cheryl Osgood, who called me yesterday to report that she had discovered two large “orange and white” moths mating on a tree trunk along a hiking trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I grabbed a couple of field guides and headed out to meet her. The moths, sporting beautiful gray wings with vivid orange stripes and creamy white patches, turned out to be royal walnut moths (Citheronia regalis), one of the largest species of moths in the United States, with a wingspan of 4-6 inches and a caterpillar that can grow to 6 inches in length! The larger moth, on the right, is the female. It was a hot, rainy day in the woodland, but the moths were unfazed by the heat and humidity and remained attached to each other for several hours, oblivious to two excited photographers setting up tripods and flashes and sliding around on the steep, muddy bank near their nuptial tree.

The royal walnut moth, also called the regal moth, is fairly common in the southern U.S. but relatively rare in New England and the Midwest. The female moth emits pheromones that can be detected by the male from a distance of a mile or more. A day after mating, the female lays groups of 1-3 eggs on the leaves of hickory, butternut, black walnut, sweetgum and other trees. The eggs hatch out about a week later, and the caterpillars evolve through several stages or “instars” until they are fully grown, displaying red “horns” near the head and appearing quite menacing, hence their common name of “hickory horned devils”. In fact the caterpillars are harmless and safe to handle. The caterpillars overwinter as pupas in a burrow in the ground. The adult moths do not feed and only live for one to two weeks.

We were privileged to share some time in the forest with these gentle, beautiful creatures.


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