Friday, 21 October 2011

Around the Arc Light

Around the Arc Light

By A. Hyatt Verrill

Illustrated by the author.

Popular Science; Feb 1, 1899; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle October 2011

Have you ever noticed of a summer's evening the throng of insects flying about the electric lights and wondered what they were? To the insect hunter these swarms of light-blinded creatures furnish a rich collecting ground, and by the aid of a net, the amateur collector may procure many fine and perfect specimens in an evening's stroll from light to light, especially on the outskirts of the city. The majority of the creatures attracted to the light are small and common species of moths, lace-wing and caddice-flies, and beetles, especially "June bugs." Among the myriad of small fry, however, one may always see a few larger moths, principally belonging to the family of "Saturniidse," or, as they are commonly called, "silk-worms." This family comprises our largest and most beautiful insects. Perhaps the commonest and at the same time one of the handsomest of these is the Io moth, (fig. 1), (Antomeris Io), a medium-sized species in which the male and female differ greatly in color. The male is deep yellow and the female purplish-red, but both sexes may be readily identified by the large black and pale-blue spots or "eyes," on the lower wings. The larva (fig. 2) of this pretty moth feeds on corn, grass, apple, or in fact any green leaf. The body of the caterpillar is clear apple-green with a broad reddish-brown stripe edged with white extending along the side. The whole surface of the body is covered with stiff, black-pointed, branching spines, which inflict painful, itching wounds when roughly handled. More than twice the size of the Io, but almost as common, is the Polyphemus, (Telea Polyphemus), a beautiful, ochre-yellow moth, whose stout, green larva feeds on maple, elm and oak trees. This caterpillar (fig. 3) spins a yellowish-white cocoon among leaves, and is the only one of our native silk-worms of any commercial value.

A number of attempts have been made to manufacture silk from the cocoons of Polyphemus, but as they are very difficult to unwind, as the silk is of inferior quality and as the caterpillars consume an enormous quantity of food compared to the Asiatic species, the enterprise has been generally abandoned. The Ailanthus silkworm, a Chinese species somewhat resembling the last, has been introduced into the United States, and in many localities is not infrequently to be seen, flapping about within the radius of the arc-lights. Doubtless the handsomest of all our moths is the beautiful Luna or " Queen of the night," a species whose pale-green wings frequently measure five inches or more from tip to tip. The thickened border of the forward wings is deep purple-brown, forming a most lovely contrast with the furry, white head and delicate green wings on each of which there is an eye-shaped transparent spot. The chief beauty of the Luna however, lies in the hind wings which are prolonged in a pair of graceful and slender green "tails." Owing to its resemblance in color to the foliage, this moth is seldom seen in the daytime and is usually considered quite a rarity among young collectors. The larvae however are common and very easy to rear. They feed upon the leaves of hickory and walnut, and closely resemble the caterpillar of the Polyphemus, but the diagonal stripes and golden or reddish warts of that species are replaced in the present species by a longitudinal line and silvery or pearly tubercles.

Largest of all our moths, with his handsome red and brown wings expanding seven inches or more, is the Cecropia, an elegant and rather common species, whose brilliantly colored larvae feed upon nearly every species of forest, shade and fruit tree. The body of this caterpillar is three or four inches long, of a dull, bluish green. Along the back and sides are a number of large, warty, tubercles of red, yellow and blue, each wart tipped with stiff, black bristles. The cocoons of Cecropia are very distinctive; they are dark reddish or tawny, long and pointed at the ends, and are fastened by one side to the stem of some bush or small tree.

Another common moth, (fig. 4). the female of which is often confounded by novices with the Cecropia, is the Promethus, (Callosamia Prometheus). Although at first sight the resemblance between the two is strong, yet the present species is easily distinguished by its smaller size and more decidedly reddish color. The male is so entirely different from his mate as to be often mistaken for another species. He is almost pure black throughout, the transverse lines and spots of the female being very faint, or even entirely wanting in some specimens. The larva of this moth, (fig. 5), when fully grown, attains a length of two and one-half inches, and is one of our prettiest colored caterpillars. The surface of the body is a most beautiful transparent blue-green with the legs, and a large tubercle on the back of the eighth segment, rich golden yellow. Along the sides are rows of shining blue-black warts, near the head are four larger ones of bright coral red. The cocoon of Prometheus is very odd in shape and construction. It is long, narrow and enclosed within a leaf whose stem is securely fastened to the branch by a silken band extending from the cocoon. The cocoons hang all winter on the trees, and at that season can be readily found and collected.

Occasionally while watching the commoner insects, one may see a large, swift-flying moth, shining like burnished gold as it flashes back and forth through the rays of light. This is the Imperial moth, (Basilona Imperially), a grand and beautiful creature, expanding some five or six inches. The shining, yellow wings are blotched, veined and speckled with purplish brown and lilac. The caterpillar of this moth (fig. 6) is very large and ugly, reaching a length of three and a half to four inches. Its color is very variable, sometimes green, green and black, brown and black, or even clear black, but always to be known by four short, blunt spines near the head and a number of long slender hairs scattered over the body. Although the Imperial is considered quite a find by most collectors, it is his brilliant relative, the Regal moth, (Citheronia Regalis), which fills the entymologist's heart with joy. This truly royal insect (fig. 7) spreads some six inches, the fore-wings are olive spotted with yellow and veined with red. The hind wings are orange-red spotted with yellow, and with an indistinct olive band near the edge. The larva (fig. 6) resembles that of the Imperial but the horns are longer, while the hairs are short or wanting. The favorite foods of both these "worms "are butternut and sassafras. Although generally considered rare, I have never failed to find one or both of these beautiful moths around the arc-lights during an evenings walk in late summer, and on one occasion I secured four beautiful Regal moths in less than half an hour.

Closely related to the Royal and Imperial moths is the rather rare "Maia," (Hemiliusa Maia), a small species easily recognized by the semi-transparent black wings, crossed by a broad white or cream-colored band. (fig. 1) The larva (fig. 2) which feeds on the leaves of the oak is brownish-black with a yellow stripe on either side, and, like the caterpillar of the Io moth, is armed with a number of branching spines. In the present species however these spines are not poisonous. These are but a few of the many species of moths that my readers may find around the city lights. Many pages might be filled with descriptions of the swift-flying "hawk-moths (fig. 8) and beautiful "tiger-moths" which nightly leave their woodland homes to beat themselves to pieces against the hard, glass globes. But there are two strange creatures you will always find around the arc-lights, which will doubtless prove a puzzle. The first of these is a dark-colored insect some three inches long, and possessing a powerful flight. As he darts hither and thither, and bumps against the globe with all his force, he seems intent upon breaking the glass. Finally, however, exhausted by his persistent, though futile, efforts he falls to the earth where you can secure him. Surely he is an odd-looking insect, with his flat, oval body cased in polished green armor from head to tail, while his prominent, shining eyes, and strong, curved and sharp-pointed fore legs, give him quite a ferocious appearance, which his character in no way belies, (fig. 10). This is the “Giant Water-bug" an inhabitant of ponds and streams wherein he spends the day, gorging himself on small fishes and water-insects which he readily overtakes in their native element. The strangest thing about these giant-bugs is their manner of laying eggs. Instead of placing them singly or in clusters upon plants or other objects, the female water-bug carries her eggs about on her back, where they are securely fastened by a sort of waterproof, glue-like secretion. Until the advent of electric lights these insects were seldom seen, and many of the more ignorant people seem to consider them a product of the electricity. On this account they are commonly known as "electric light bugs," in many parts of the country.

The other insect-puzzle which will be likely to confront the amateur collector around the arc lights, is a beautiful creature somewhat resembling a gigantic caddice-fly (fig. 11). Its mottled, transparent wings spreading four to five inches. Its most striking peculiarity, however, is the pair of long, curved jaws on the head and with which the owner can pinch a person's finger severely. This insect is known as the "Horned Corydalis" and is the adult of that curious creature called a "Dobson," which lives beneath stones in brooks and streams and is so highly prized as bait for bass fishing.

At whatever hour of the night you visit the arc-lights you will always find two entomologists there before you. These are Prof. Bat and Dr. Toad. The lively professor flits rapidly about on noiseless wings, snapping up any light-blinded insects which suit his taste, while the grave-faced, solemn-eyed doctor, sits quietly in the shadow below and eagerly gobbles the unfortunates that, exhausted by their efforts, fall to earth. Oftentimes a score of bats and twice as many toads may be seen around a single light. This shows how quickly the lower animals learn to benefit themselves by man's inventions. Though an incalculable number of insects are devoured nightly by these persistent hunters, ten times as many more are killed by falling within the globes which are often half filled with their charred remains.

The larvae of nearly all these insects are injurious to shade or fruit trees, or vegetables, so that when we stop to consider the enormous number of electric lights in use and the immense number of eggs laid by a single moth, we can realize what a benefit the lights have proved, aside from their original purpose.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.