Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 18, 2016

A Hawk’s Tale

Last autumn I acquired an impressive pupa made by an appropriately handsome Privet Hawk-moth.  It had been discovered beneath the soil in an Essex back garden.  It was in my garden shed that it spent the winter, kept safe from nibbling rodent teeth on a bed of earth in an aerated glass jar.  Away from the warmth of the house I could ensure that the moth wouldn’t emerge too soon and on its release be condemned to a lonely flight period without any chance of finding others of its kind.

At the beginning of June and with the flight season of the adults approaching, I brought the chrysalis indoors and out of the cool and gloom of its winter quarters.  I placed it in a good size plastic container draped inside with fine-mesh netting on which the emerging imago would be able to climb up and dry out.  I would check the container regular, eager for an up-close encounter with one of Britain’s most spectacular moths.

This was, at least, my intention.  Life can be busy and to my shame I neglected to maintain my daily inspections.  Earlier this week, on remembering my days of absent-mindedness I dropped what I was doing and hurried to the container.  I found the pupa lying at the bottom… empty!  I didn’t see the moth at first, which takes some doing, given that Privet Hawks bear a wingspan of anything between 90 and 120mm.  But there it was, settled on the netting hanging down the side.

On taking it in hand it became evident that it had suffered from my lack of attentiveness.  It could hardly muster a flap in a forlorn effort to evade capture.  My friend Max was with me, someone with experience of rearing hawk-moths; we resolved to make good the situation.  I mixed some sugar-water, richly enough to make a rather syrup consistency.  We placed the moth with its tightly coiled proboscis more or less right in the sweet solution, but it would not feed.  Had my forgetfulness rendered the moth too week to even feed itself?  I felt annoyed and disappointed with myself.  My dismay however, was to be spared.  Had it not been for Max deftly uncoiling the proboscis with a pin and quite literally sticking it into fluid, our efforts at revival would have been in vain.  We watched the insect guzzling heartily, but for no more than a minute, yet this was enough for it to take tentative wing.

Later on I released it for good.  Taking it outside and with it sitting on my hand I enjoyed the low hum of its beating wings as it warmed its flight muscles and the not unsubstantial flow of air that they created as I held it to my cheek.  I tried to place it in a part of the garden most filled with flowers, should it need to seek prompt sustenance.  But it was reluctant to move from my hand and onto the plants.  Angling my arm in trying to encourage the moth in the right direction I had inadvertently created a launch ramp.  Gathering confidence in its wings in ran-cum-flew up towards my elbow and describing a large ‘S’ against the late-dusk sky was gone.

Privet Hawk-moth (Sphinx ligustri).  Ross Gardner 2016

Privet Hawk-moth (Sphinx ligustri). Ross Gardner 2016

Privet Hawk-moth taking sugar-water.  Ross Gardner 2016

Privet Hawk-moth taking sugar-water. Ross Gardner 2016


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