Kai is frozen in time, he is beguiled by a Io caterpillar munching away at a bright green leaf, having its daily meal.
"Kai! what at you looking at?" says Nina to her brother.
For two weeks now, the pigeon pea tree on my back yard has become "the bed and breakfast" stay for hundreds of Io caterpillars. This area of my home garden is now the outdoors lab for a group of elementary students that come once a week to learn about gardening and ecology.
From tiny little orange color bugs, no bigger that a headpin, the Io caterpillars have growned 2 1/2 to 3 inches in length and their fragile body has turned bright green with many spines. These stinging spines have a very painful venom that is released with the slightest touch; a condition known as erucism.
The young students have no fear of these beautiful creatures, nor of their venom spines. They search every branch of the tree pleased to find the amazing creatures. In a few days these arthropods will have turned from devouring caterpillars to pupae resting in silk cocoons eclosing as beautiful moths.
It took couple of days to find our first adult moth. As we carefully look under the surrounding bushes and trees, we discovered a female moth, she blended with the fallen brown leaves of a clusia plant. Are males and females the same size and color? we all wondered... we realized we had work to do.
"Research must follow observation!" I said to the students, "to have a better understanting of nature."
The following week the students read outloud in class from their gardening journals their findings. Females have reddish brown forewings, body, and legs and males have bright yellow forewings, body, and legs with a wingspan of 2.5-3.5 inches (63–88 mm). Both have one big black to bluish eyespot with some white in the center, on each hindwing. These dots are meant to frighten off potential predators, especially when the moths is sitting in the head-down position. The males have much bigger feathery antennae than the females.
Adult moths normally emerge from their cocoons in late morning or early afternoon. Emerging only takes a few minutes. After eclosing, the moths take 20 minutes to inflate their wings with fluid (hemolymph) pumped from the body as they hang on plants. Adult moths are nocturnal, flying only during the first few hours of the night. The females wait for nightfall to release a scent in order to attract males. Using their antennae the males track down the females. After mating, the females lay eggs then wait to die. During the adult form, the moth eats no food.
We have continued to observe the fantastic cycle of the Io moth. We can only hope to see it happen every year, as we grow older! Like a Io moth journing through the cycles of life, we too can experience such journey time and time again as a child, as a young adult and as an adult. And each time we observe nature's wonders, our perception and understanding of life will change once again, giving a new rise to awareness of the mind, heart and spirit!