Lepidoptera host plants

A guide to Lepidoptera host plants: Saturniidae silk moths

A guide to Lepidoptera host plants: Saturniidae silk moths

Lepidoptera host plants in

Saturniidae is the most popular family of Silk moth, you can find here a short article dedicated to the best host plants to obtain healthy and large caterpillars from your own captive brood.

Intruduction to Lepidoptera host plants

When we raise Lepidoptera in captivity, we should feed them with the same host plants they find in wild, that is not easy because is rare to have reliable data and the availability of the native Lepidoptera host plant species. Most of the beautiful Saturniidae we find, came from tropical countries where the knowledge of their biology is poor. An example is Ceranchia apollina, a moth that we have offered in the past and will available again, subscribe our newsletter in the contact us section to be notified when new species are available.

Often, the natural host plants aren’t available in our country, especially if the moths we breed cames from tropical or subtropical countries. In that case, it’s worth to offer different plants, known as alternative host plants. Most of the silk moths are polyphagous and they eat a great variety of plants, Attacus atlas, the atlas moths, is known to eat more than 200 species of plants. So, in captivity, it’s easy to find a good alternative.

How to choose a good Lepidoptera host plant

Choosing a good and pesticides-free food plant is important to complete the silk moths life cycle. We choose our plants away from busy streets, farms and cultivated fields to avoid pesticides. The food plant’s quality is very important. Testing the selected Lepidoptera host plants on one or few caterpillars before providing it to the whole batch is a suggested technique.

Leaves have to be bright green depending on the species, without yellowing, necrosis or with powdery mildew. Phytophagous parasites such as aphids or scale insect can also compromise the quality of our host plant. It’s also important to keep on eye on the predators that can kill or eat the caterpillars: spiders, wasps and other Arthropoda are very dangerous for the moths larvae.

Remember: high quality Lepidoptera host plants are key to achieve a successful rearing.

The perfect food plants for Saturniidae species

Most of the silk moth species eat broad leaves plants (deciduous or evergreen) but in captivity, the evergreen species are preferred: they can be used throughout all the year.

Ligustrum ovalifolium
Ligustrum ovalifolium, example of healthy leaves

One of the best and more commonly accepted Lepidoptera host plants is privet. The Ligustrum species belong to the olive family oleaceae, they’re common in Europe and North America where they’re used as ornamental hedge. Privets are generally evergreen, with thick leaves that can stay fresh once cutted for almost 3-4 days. They’re accepted by lots of tropical Saturniidae including Attacus, Samia, Antherina, Automeris, Callosamia, Citheronia, Eacles, Eupckardia and other species you can find here.

In Europe the most common species is Ligustrum ovalifolium, the garden privet; and it seems to be the best choice to raise our caterpillars. Anyway, in the southern Europe we can also find Ligustrum lucidum, Ligustrum sinense, Ligustrum japonicum and Ligustrum vulgare (the European species) but, in our experience, we reccommend using Ligustrum ovalifolium.

The second one, is sweetgum. Liquidambar styraciflua is a species of tree in the Altingiaceae family, native to the subtropical and tropical regions of North and Central America. It has big deciduous leaves, with a sweet fragrance that reminds the amber. Their leaves stay fresh once cutted for 2-3 \ 4-5 days, and usually the quality of them is very good, because they’re not affected by any particular pathogens.

Liquidambar it’s well accepted by lots of Saturniidae, including Argema mittrei and Argema mimosae (Comet moth and African moon moth), Samia, Actias, Saturnia and Antheraea.

Interesting fact: this species is from America but it’s well accepted by European species (Like Saturnia pavonia, Saturnia pavoniella, Saturnia pyri), that’s because, long ago, the ancestors of Saturnia fed on Liquidambar species which had a wider distribution range. So now, despite European species don’t actually feed on Liquidambar in nature, they can eat it in captivity.

Saturnia pyri caterpillar
Saturnia pyri caterpillar on Liquidambar styraciflua

Alternative host plants

Not all the Lepidoptera host plants are deciduous. Species like Actias duebernardi (Chinese moon moth) can be raised on various plants on the pine family; in their natural home range they feed on Pinus massoniana, but in captivity they grow well on Pinus sylvetris (scots pine) and on Abies nordmanniana (nordmann fir). Usually, the species that eat conifers are from high mountains or alpine regions.

Some silk moths have, anyway, a small number of host plants. Species like the famed Bombyx mori, known as silk worm or mulberry silk worm can be raised only on mulberry trees (Morus alba and Morus nigra), so not all the silk moth are polyphagous.

Identify the correct Lepidoptera host plants

To choose the right Lepidoptera host plants, you have to identify it before. Don’t worry if you’re not an expert or botanist, you will learn over the time. Some applications like Plant Snap are available in our smartphone, they can help you to identify the right food plant. There are also many Facebook groups to help the people to identify the plants.

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