Moth Mother: Betsy Higgins of Florence raises hundreds of caterpillars in her home

  • Higgins holds a polyphemus moth, one of the types she raises. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins stands with her lights and white cloth that she uses to catch the wild moths. CAROL LOLLIS—Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins cuts open a cocoon that failed to produce a moth, it had developed from the pupa to a female moth. You can see the abdomen and what would have been wings, and even an egg. For unknown reasons to Higgins it was not successful emerging from the cocoon. Higgins had a success rate of somewhere around 60% success rate for cocoons hatching. This is far better than the rate in nature, but Higgins says, " I would love to do better." CAROL LOLLIS—Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins cleans out the box with caterpillars and Wild Black Cherry leaves in it. Higgins put sticks in so they will have somewhere to build their cocoon. CAROL LOLLIS—Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Above, Higgins shows three cecropia moth caterpillars. They can reach up to almost 4 inches long. At right, she cleans the box containing caterpillars and the wild black cherry leaves they eat. She also puts sticks in the box so that the caterpillars have somewhere to build their cocoons. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Higgins holds a polyphemus moth cocoon from which a moth should emerge in the spring. Some, however, are coming out now. The problem is that it is too late in the season for the emerging moth to complete its cycle before leaves fall from the trees. The caterpillars produced by its eggs will have no food. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Higgins cuts open a cocoon that failed to produce a moth showing the abdomen and what would have been wings, and even an egg. She had a success rate of about 60 percent for cocoons hatching. This is far better than the rate in nature, she says, but " I would love to do better." Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Higgins listens as a moth gets ready to emerge from its cocoon. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Betsy Higgins holds three Cecropia Moth caterpillars. They can reach up to 10cm. (which is almost 4”) long! Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins opens one of the many moth containers at her home in Florence. CAROL LOLLIS—Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins cleans out the box with caterpillars and Wild Black Cherry leaves in it. Higgins put sticks in so they will have somewhere to build their cocoon. CAROL LOLLIS—Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins has been raising caterpillars at her Florence home since she retired. She says she is fascinated to watch them transform into moths. Here she checks a cocoon. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Betsy Higgins holds a pupa that she cut out of a cocoon. It failed (for unknown reasons) to emerge as a moth. You can see the formation of the large feather-like antennae of what would have been a male Cecropia Moth, if it had emerged successfully. CAROL LOLLIS—Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 8/25/2016 3:44:25 PM

When you walk into Betsy Higgins’ home on Straw Avenue in Florence you hear an odd sound, like rain falling.

Enter the kitchen and you see where it’s coming from. In two big plastic crates stacked next to the counter there are hundreds of thick, green caterpillars crawling under bushels of leaves, munching. By the end of the summer, most of these creatures will have begun spinning into cocoons and then by spring they’ll have turned into moths that she’ll release in her yard.

“It’s exciting when they start coming out,” Higgins said as she showed a visitor her collection on a recent afternoon. “It is like magic. There is nothing like it. When they come out they are really so beautiful.”

Higgins, 61, a retired home day-care provider, spends almost every day during the summer months tending to her creepy crawlies. If she takes a vacation during this phase, she gets a caterpillar sitter.

Why? Because she says she loves the creatures and is fascinated by the transformation process. And if she happens to help replenish the moth population, which has been declining for decades, that’s a bonus.

“I mainly do it for the fun of it. I get a kick out it,” she said.

A consuming passion

Each day during the summer she scavenges for leaves to feed the caterpillars, collects stray ones from tree branches near her home, and cleans their droppings from the crates.

When the caterpillars are at the peak of their eating phase, she has to fill a big grocery bag each outing with either oak or black cherry tree leaves — caterpillars are particular. Sometimes that means long walks.

“You can’t cut down the tree, so you have to take what you can,” she said. “Anywhere I go — I look for them.”

By fall, her house has hundreds of silk moth cocoons in old take-out containers tucked away in bins and bags in the screen enclosure on her porch. She transfers them into mesh trash cans over the winter, which protect them from mice, but also to give them exposure to the rain and snow. This mimics a natural environment until the moths emerge.

Each year she saves one female moth and lets it sit in a cloth net outside, until it mates with males that swarm the net. It will lay eggs and in five days, baby caterpillars hatch to start the cycle over.

“It’s a lot of work for a little brief moment of glory, you know?” she said.

The moths only live up to two weeks. They don’t eat anything during their lives. They don’t even have mouths. “Their sole purpose is to mate, reproduce and be beautiful I guess,” Higgins said.

Nights on the porch

Trappings related to the life cycle of the silk moth are all over the house Higgins shares with her husband, Douglas. The couple have two grown daughters who have moved away. Books on moths are everywhere. Higgins’ computer is filled with thousands of photos she has taken of moths of all sizes, some as big as bats, others as tiny as specks of dust.

She shot these pictures by the glow of the black light on her back porch, where she stays up well past midnight to watch the moths nearly every night.

She even travels with a black light and a white sheet, which she uses as a backdrop for taking photos. When she visits her daughters, one in California and one in Arizona, she brings all her moth-watching supplies.

Higgins may seem unusually passionate about moths, but she is not alone in her love for these creatures. She is part of a network of moth enthusiasts in western Massachusetts and across the nation who maintain a catalog of species and communicate with each other online in the wee hours of the night between visits to their black lights.

Higgins shuffles in and out of her back door, sometimes until 3 a.m., to see how many species she can spot.

“I do it out of curiosity,” Higgins said. “When I first started doing it I thought, ‘maybe this will contribute to the species coming back.” Now she is not so sure.

Moved by the moths’ plight

She started all of this five years ago when she learned about the moths’ plight.

The insects have been under siege since 1906 when scientists first released a parasitic fly to kill Gypsy moths, pests that have devastated forests in North America, said Jeff Boettner, a scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

But the release of this fly, called compsilura concinnata, had unanticipated consequences, resulting in the decline of other moth species as well, he said.

The fly kills caterpillars in a matter of days by jabbing and implanting them with maggots, Boettner said. He got a close view of this himself in a study he conducted in which he reared thousands of caterpillars and set them in trees in the Quabbin Reservoir area. Over the next five days, most of them suffered a grisly death.

“That maggot just starts consuming the caterpillar from the inside out. It saves the vital organs for last so basically the caterpillar is wiggling around with this thing eating it alive,” he said. “It’s a heck of a way to go. ...There is no real way for the caterpillar to escape it.”

Many of the fly’s victims are silk moth caterpillars like, cecropia, the largest moth in North America and one of Higgins’ favorites to raise. As caterpillars, they can grow to up to 4 inches long. As moths, their wingspan is typically between 4 to 5 inches. They have large brown wings with spots that resemble eyes. “They are pretty spectacular looking,” said Higgins, whose love of winged creatures started with bird watching as a child.

Though optimistic when she first started raising caterpillars, she now doubts that she can help much.

“If the parasitism rate is so high, at almost 100 percent, then it doesn’t matter how much I put out there. Maybe it does some good I hope so,”

Her friend, Laurie Sanders of Westhampton, who also has raised caterpillars, thinks it does.

“Betsy’s efforts to raise several thousand more moths can be viewed as a small conservation step and effort to help these impressive silk moths,” she said.

While this year Higgins has raised about 200 caterpillars, in past years she has nurtured as many as 500, but there is no telling exactly how many have passed through the Higgins household.

Her husband, Douglas, doesn’t seem to mind the invasion.

“The caterpillars don’t bother him,” Higgins said. “The caterpillars don’t run around or make noise. They don’t get hair on things. They are not smelly. They are pretty benign. They just take up some space, that’s all.”

A temporary boost

Such focus on breeding moths by people like Higgins might provide a temporary boost in the local moth population, Boettner said, but to really save these silk moths, scientists would have to find a way to get rid of the parasitic fly.

“I suspect that when people are trying to do releases to build out the population, they would just have to put out a tremendous number and even then those are probably not going to make it.”

Boettner remembers growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s when he used to collect silk moths by the hundreds. They were extremely abundant. Today you are lucky if you see one, he said.

Higgins sees that decline on her own back porch. Often she waits and few moths come. “I turn on my lights every night and I am usually disappointed, but I guess it’s a good thing or else I would never sleep,” she said.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

 




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