In search of saturnids (2010.6.1[Tue.])


   It's a spot in the city of Okayama just outside a short tunnel on a winding road that leads to Tsuyama. A ramen shop that stays open late. Around ten years back, I used to go there on moth hunts. It's a nearly ideal site when you think about it - the road follows the line of the mountains such that the shop's massive spotlight for drawing late-night diners sweeps the entire valley on all sides. It's hard to say whether the light is better at attracting customers or insects. And at the same time, it's fair to say that moth collectors rarely encounter such a perfect, if environmentally unsound, hunting ground. In some seasons, the space directly beneath the light looked like a naturally formed collector's box full of fresh-fallen specimens. I can't even say now what I was there for. I would wolf down a bowl of fried chicken ramen (which my health would keep me from eating today), before grabbing my net from my car and marching off fearlessly into the hills. I say fearlessly because it takes a certain amount of courage for a grown man to run around a parking lot in the middle of the night, waving a net wildly as he chases insects while a bunch of total strangers slurp their ramen and look on. Quite the spectacle. But can you really call yourself passionate about moths if you're not willing to make a few sacrifices for your love?

    Okayama has some serious bugs. They usually appear just when the insect field guides say they will, so you can even go out with specific species in mind. Of course, some have begun to appear in completely inappropriate seasons due to climate change. I've spotted Saturnia jonasii and S. japonica in July, and once in Daisen (though not in Okayama) I saw a tiny male beetle that had apparently made a second molting in September. Ifve even heard there's a spot in Japan where purple emperors (Sasakia charonda) come to molt twice a year. I don't suppose I even need to mention the spread of the great mormon (Papilio memnon) and Indian fritillary (Argyreus hyperbius). It's difficult to tell whether global warming has been a bad or a good thing for them....

    S. jonasii is a lovely saturnid that begins to show itself just as many other insects life cycles are ending, and many collectors familiar with the area don't know it can be found there. When I visited my Okayama hunting grounds in late September, I found a beautiful male that had just emerged from its chrysalis, making it easy to catch. Someone I'll call Dr. M, who is now studying comparative neuroscience at a certain university here in Japan, was with me on that outing. He is a bold moth hunter, who says worrying what people might think is for cowards, and races after moths onto trafficked roads, despite the risk he might be hit by a car. I worry that insects might cause him trouble one day. At any rate, after that trip, he awakened to the beauty of saturnids, and simultaneously became my rival. And since then we have been competing fiercely to collect the most delicate colored specimens for our collections.

    In many of the species in this group, the males are the lovelier. At least in S. jonasii and japonica, the difference is striking. There is distinct polymorphism within species as well, meaning that each individual has its own unique coloration and patterning. This is what fueled our passion - the prospect of one of a kind beauty. We had no sense that we would wait patiently for a saturnid, and stalked around behind convenience stores and in parking lots at midnight, even trying mightily to hunt using a light. I think it was in 1999 during an explosion of S. japonica in Okayama, that our rivalry reached its peak. Insect collectors are an odd sort - even as they compete with each other, they're compelled to hunt in groups. It's rare to encounter such a strong combination of togetherness and competition.

    In early November, as winter nears, Rhodinia fugax appears. Yes, it's a surprising moth - I captured a male-female pair at the CDB Retreat in the mountains of Sasayama last year. One place I can always be sure of finding them is the ramen shop by the Okayama mountain road. The male is bright yellow, while the female is smaller and brown. They are known for their sharp wing patterns and comb-like antennae, and their sexual dimorphism is extreme. Given their late-blooming nature, they are well-equipped against the cold. Females are plump with beautiful coats of fur on their abdomens, no doubt to protect their eggs from the cold winter air. Unusually, the female of this species is the more attractive (see figure). The CDB Director, Dr. Takeichi agrees with that assesment. But unless caught immediately after hatching from their cocoons, their wings are frequently damaged and you need to chase quite a few to find a truly beautiful catch. This was another moth over which Prof. M and I began to vie, and it is equally famous for the gorgeous green chrysalises it weaves. Ken Tagawa writes about these in detail in his Mushiya no mushi megane ("A glass for insect fanciers"), and the general splendor of the saturnids is described well in Ryu Osanai's Konchu hodan ("Insect chats"), which I have written about previously. Prof. M himself has a slightly disquieting tale to tell involving a Rhodinia cocoon, but I will leave interested readers to seek that from him directly.

    If I am to write of moths I have sought to collect in quantity, I can't neglect Antharaea yamamai (fig.), which I introduced in a previous essay. It flourishes for a relatively long season between summer and fall, making it one of the easier species to find, and the variety of its coloring is remarkable, ranging from a brown so dark it seems black, to yellows that dazzle the eye, each moth is like an autumn leaf, fluttering alone. The brilliant yellow sometimes displayed by large females can be startling, and O-san, the proprietor of the moth museum I wrote of earlier, says of them that, "It's a color you'd expect to see in a moth, but not on its wing. It's a color you'd never find if you went searching for it." This is why we moth lover are never satisfied with however many saturnids we might already have. Some self-styled experts and collectors might senselessly complain, "There'll be no end of it if you just keep collecting those large moths. For one thing, you'll run out of space to keep them all." Ha! Let them follow their dark and weird obsessions, dwelling endlessly in their lonely little worlds... though I suppose I'm no different. Even in moths of the same species, each individual has its own unique beauty - this is the framework in which we appreciate them, and the path that we must follow. The changes that drive evolution. Can you quibble over a few collection cases when choosing your moths? What kind of priorities are those? In my collection, I have boxes just for A. yamamai, for S. japonica, and for Actias artemis, even a separate box reserved for the most beautiful A. yamamai, which holds the loveliest of all, two specimens I call the Queens. Once again, I've started and ended with the tale of an insect, and must ask you to settle for enjoying them only through the photo below.