By Jeff Tome, Public Engagement Specialist

Time flies when you are having fun, but how does a moth feel about time? These are the thoughts that wake me up in the middle of the night and make me think (and have bizarre dreams).  What does a moth notice about time? They don’t have watches, clocks or phones to tell time, or lose an hour of sleep each spring to let them know that it is getting light out earlier.

Every moth is different, but let’s stick to what I know. I have raised several kinds of local silk moths over the years: Luna Moths, Promethea Moths, Polyphemous Moths and Cecropia Moths. They all have a similar lifestyle, and, I presume, a similar sense of time.

Obviously, I can’t crawl into a moth’s exoskeleton and guess what they are thinking, but sometimes I like to think about what it would be like if I could. Right now, these moths are scrunched up in cocoons. Some are attached to branches, some curled up in leaves on the ground, and some curled up in a leaf that they attach to a branch with strong silk. Their wings are tiny, not yet unfurled, and they fit in a package that looks tiny compared to the moth that will come out of it.

Promethea Moth Cocoon
Promethea Moth Cocoon: Photo by Jeff Tome

They have been in those cocoons for months. Some have been there since August. What’s that like? They spent a month or two as a caterpillar, slowly plodding and hiding in the trees as they avoided birds, ate leaves and grew. I think of them as small six-legged tree cows, fattening up for birds to feast on in the trees. They spend their time eating and, when not eating, often sit motionless for hours. Perhaps they are more like tiny meditating six-legged tree cows, quietly grazing and watching time pass in chewing contemplation. What is life like when you pay attention only to the essentials, food and shelter? What is life like when you eliminate bills to be paid, meetings to attend, errands to run and house crises to fix? What’s it like to spend life in quiet contemplation of your food?  I think time would flow differently, though I think I would grow tired of that lifestyle fairly quickly.Silk moth caterpillars only spend a couple of months eating. Interestingly, for them, that is the only food they will eat in their life. (More on that later.)

Lets go back to what those plodding tree cows are up to now, crumpled up in their cocoons. I have a hard time sitting through a two and a half hour staff meeting; I can’t even begin to imagine spending eight months unmoving in a cocoon. What’s it like in there? They can see the slow passing of days from light to dark to light again. They have enough room to move, at least a little. I have felt their cocoons shake and vibrate from time to time. For the most part though, they simply wait.

Do they understand the change they went through when they made the cocoon? Do they understand that they have left their plodding, leaf-munching days behind them and that, when they emerge, they will pump up wings with fluid and fly into the moonlight? Do they simply freeze in the cold and think nothing? Or, do they sit in there for months wondering what is going on?

Polyphemous Caterpillar by Jeff Tome

I can imagine their panicked thoughts. “What happened to all the extra pro-legs that I hold on to trees with? My legs feel so skinny! Do I have a mouth? I can’t feel my mouth! How will I eat? What are these things on my back? I don’t remember things on my back. It feels weird.  I’m hairy! Why am I so hairy? What happened to the knobs and spikes on my back?”

Can you imagine spending three quarters of your life trapped in a cocoon wondering what is happening to you? I like to think instinct takes over and they just know what to do, but really, we have no idea what, if anything, an insect thinks. What we know is that what emerges from a cocoon looks and acts nothing like what went in.

Of course, this article is a perfect example of giving human feelings of animals, but I think it’s useful to try and slip into the skins of other beings and try to experience the world from their point of view. I would rather think they are not panicking in their cocoon, but it’s true that every cocoon marks the end of the world for a caterpillar and a brand new world for the moth that emerges.

I imagine time slows in the cocoon, even slower than the plodding life of a caterpillar, but flies when the moth emerges. Things happen fast once they start to leave the cocoon. Usually, they come out in the afternoon to allow time for wings to pump up and spread out. They emerge without a mouth or stomach, and will never eat again for the rest of their short life. Adult moths in the silk moth family spread their wings and fly off. The males have huge antennae that they use to smell a female moth to mate with, the females release a smell called a pheromone so they are easy for the males to find.

After a life spent in plodding cow-like, eating and curled up in a cocoon, life suddenly is rushed. They use up the fat stored in their bodies in a search for mates and laying eggs. They generally only have a week to ten days before their energy runs out, so time is of the essence. Adult moths are also a great snack for birds, so these moths spend the days sitting on trees and leaves, before resuming their search for a mate at night. Time is now short, but do they know that? I have no idea.

Moths took over this article more than I intended. I wanted to write about insects that we think about living only for a day or two, but often spend months as a larvae. I think, in our minds, we often only think about the lives of the adult insects and not the young, but the young are often longer in the world than the adults, hidden in places humans overlook. It is easy to be taken with awe at the sight of a Luna Moth that lives for only days, but forget the long time and many obstacles that it took for that moth to come out and fly. The next time you see an insect, try to slip into it’s exoskeleton and see the world the way it might.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and outdoor facilities are open from dawn to dusk. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.