Behind the Photo: Mating Moths

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Hylaphora cecropia – once among North America’s most common large insects, is now rare.

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Some photography projects are planned months in advance. Others just sort of happen at unexpected moments. Like, when taking out the trash.

One summer evening a couple years ago, while dumping rubbish in the can, I spotted these spectacular moths up against the house behind the recycling bin. Cecropia moths, mating on the young female’s cocoon! These giant silk moths used to be common insects in the eastern United States, but owing to a combination of biocontrol gone wrong and habitat loss I don’t see more than one or two individuals a season. It was a rare find in an unphotogenic setting, wedged up next to the cinderblock foundation.

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I wanted a photograph of course, but in situ I had no room to maneuver nor any hope of a non-industrial backdrop. So I opted to move them. The moths stayed put when I pulled up their redbud sapling for transplant to a studio whitebox. Whiteboxes allow precise control over lighting and backdrop, and with subjects as cooperative as these I had ample time to experiment. In the final photograph the moth’s behavior is natural, as is the foreground plant, but the setting and light are staged. The backdrop is a single colored posterboard, curved slightly to add a light gradient.

Once finished with the project, I moved the amorous insects to a nearby tree trunk. After continuing to mate for a few more minutes, they flew off.

If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.


Photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 100, f/16, 1/100 sec
Lit by an off-camera flash in a white box

3 thoughts on “Behind the Photo: Mating Moths”

  1. Great capture! Finding saturniids is a rare event for me (in Canada), and I have never seen them in copulo. Really fine work, and great that you managed to move them without disturbing them!

  2. I live near Ann Arbor, MI and the Leslie Science Center has a large cage of them. They got a few cocoons several years back. They hatched and let the males go. They keep the females in the cage (big chicken wire) and the males come to mate. Cycle starts all over again.

  3. This is one of my favorite photos of yours. I have looked at it often. I often raise mail order saturniids for fun, including this species. I do occasionally find a larva or cocoon in the wild, but always they were parasitized.

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