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Moth Drama

Here is a list of facts about plants:

1. They sit still when you label them.

2. They are incapable of plotting escape.

3. They don't get into physical fights with each other.

I've done research with animals before, so it's not like I'm new to dealing with organisms to which the above list does not necessarily apply.  But my moths are taking this to a whole new level.

But Victoria, you signed up for a plant science program this summer--why aren't you, you know, studying plants?

Well, I am.  My focus is the evening primrose Oenothera harringtonii.  But I'm also studying its main pollinator, Hyles lineata (the white-lined sphinx moth).  And to do that, I'm keeping a whole bunch of them in cages in my PI's office--which has been an adventure.

These guys are cute.  I mean, really cute.  Even if you're not an insect person, they're soft and fuzzy and have huge adorable eyes and long goofy tongues they sort of dangle out of their mouths while hovering when they eat.  They also seem, in theory, pretty easy to deal with: you write a letter or number on their wing after they eclose and stick them in a cage with a sucrose-soaked sponge.  They even vibrate their wings for a while before they take off, so you know when they're about to try to escape.  

But of course, pretty much nothing in science actually goes the way you think it will.  For starters, it turns out that the moths, strangely enough, are not super okay with having someone write on their wings with a Sharpie.  I have to sort of sneak up on them while they're sleeping and write something really quickly before they notice what's happening--and even then some of them wake up and start flapping their wings before I'm done.  I don't have great handwriting anyway, but it's more or less impossible to write recognizable numbers on a moth who's mad at you for waking him up from a nap and messing with his wings.  I had big plans for a nice easy "Moth ID" column in my data sheet, but that column is now filled with descriptions like "blue scribble" and "red horizontal line."  

My project requires mated females (I'm hoping to find out if they prefer to lay their eggs on plants that do or don't produce a certain scent compound), which brings us to the Mating Cage.  This is where the real drama goes down.  

Our very first moth to emerge was a female, and it was several days before we had a male for her to mate with.  When he finally eclosed, we put them in the mating cage together...and they ignored each other.  The next morning, we put two new males in there, and she mated with one of them right away.  Perfect!  Little did I know that the male she was mating with was about to begin a reign of terror in the mating cage that would last for four dark days.

This was Male #2.  He was the only male in those early days to have an actual number on his wing instead of some kind of scribble or line pattern.  This deceptive little punk sat there totally relaxed while my PI wrote a perfect number 2 on his wing, like he was going to be the chillest moth in our colony, slid into the mating cage cool as a cucumber and made our dreams come true by mating with our first female.

Then he mated with the next female.

And the next.

It quickly became apparent that there was something about Male #2 that was so incredibly alluring that none of the females would mate with anyone but him.  There were four females who all went into the mating cage on the same day, and there were enough males for all of them to mate, but they seemed to be willing to wait it out for a day or two, spurning all other suitors, just so they could take turns mating with #2.  It was a nightmare--females were getting old hanging out in the mating cage without mating because the guy of their dreams wasn't available yet and they wouldn't settle for anything but the best.  But it got worse.

It was on the fifth and final day of Male #2's life that things escalated to physical violence.  I came in that morning to see him still attached to the female he had been mating with the day before.  These moths usually take hours to mate, but a full 24 seemed pretty excessive.  Apparently, the other moths in the mating cage shared that sentiment.  By midmorning the cage had erupted into a full-on brawl.  A group of moths were ganging up on the mating pair, trying to pry them apart.  Scales were flying in all directions, wings were tattered, someone's detached leg was lying next to the sucrose dish.

None of their efforts were any use.  When they all finally flew away, Male #2 was still attached to his mate, though both were looking significantly more battered than they had before.  

It was afternoon when the star-crossed lovers finally separated.  I rushed in immediately, captured Male #2, and brought him to the freezer.  Maybe it was cruel, but it was for the greater good.  Order must be restored.  (Plus, alpha male though he was, he was getting old and the quality of his spermatophores was probably beginning to decline.  Valar morghulis, etc.)

Male #2 now rests peacefully in the lab freezer with all the other males who reached old age and left this life to be replaced by a new generation of eager young moths.  The tips of his wings are in tatters, battle scars from his long and reproductively successful life.  In his absence, the mating cage is once more a happy and serene place.  

Rest in peace, Male #2.  You may not be missed, but you will be remembered.

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