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It’s springtime, and that means the moths in the lab are emerging from their cocoons. Since it is warmer here in the lab, they tend to emerge a few weeks earlier than they would in the wild. This means we get a head-start on pinning and labeling the moths before the field season gets underway.  emergences1 copy

One wall of our “rearing room”

It is bittersweet, sometimes, when I meet an adult moth I’ve raised from an egg. Knowing that it will be added to my collection as a specimen. Advancing science, but putting an end to a small, fuzzy life. It doesn’t help that I get quite attached to my caterpillars.

But in many ways I embrace this aspect of my work, as the act of pinning and spreading a moth involves considerable skill, practice, and artistry. I am also a firm believer in the importance of scientific specimen collections. Monday mornings are currently my favorite part of the week because that is when I work in UConn’s biological collections, helping to curate the moths. Each specimen has a history and tells a story.

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A freshly emerged adult moth

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Some moths on the spreading board

With the emergence of the moths comes the emergence of field gear and enthusiasm. The caterpillar lab can be a dull place during the winter. But this spring/summer promises to be full of adventure, misadventure, and insects. We are starting to receive caterpillars in the mail from collaborators in warmer climates. Moths are fluttering around porch lights at night. Collecting trips are being planned all around the country. I will be breaking out my own collecting lights within the next couple weeks.

For the time being, though, my main duty is pinning my adult moths as they emerge. If you would like to learn more about this task – my friend and I are currently creating an instructional screencast on how to pin a moth – I will post it as soon as it is finished.

Escaping the pupal shell

Life is getting more exciting here in the Wagner lab – moths are emerging! Every year we raise hundreds and hundreds of caterpillars for various projects. I am only directly involved in rearing my own specimens, but we have an army of undergraduates who help Dave rear caterpillars for his books and research. We have a “rearing room” in the lab where they are kept as caterpillars during the summer, and as pupae during the winter. Lately we have been increasing the photoperiod, heat, and humidity in order to encourage the moths to emerge a bit early. We are going to kill them to become specimens, and it’s nice to get all the pinning done before the field collecting season starts.

Today some lab members alerted me to this moth, a cute fuzzy species in the genus Cucullia (family Noctuidae). It had created its pupal chamber directly against the bottom of the plastic container amidst some paper towel. We thought this would make it easier for it to emerge, but it couldn’t seem to figure out what to do.



Its head appeared to be stuck, and it could not manage to break apart any other section of the pupal shell. We were about to cut it open to help, when…

Hurray! It emerged! It had to do some interesting yoga moves to flip around, but it got out of there in the end. It then took a few minutes to inflate its wings with hemolymph, and after a short time started looking like a regular moth.




Usually moths emerge at night in order to fluff up their wings out of sight of birds… so we had never seen a dramatic emergence such as this. Maybe it just needed some encouragement.

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

Trying to make sense of the world through science and language.