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Moths of Britain and Europe
Emperor
Saturnia pavonia  LINNAEUS, 1758
Superfamily - BOMBYCOIDEA
Family - SATURNIIDAE
subfamily - SATURNIINAE
Tribe -

Emperor, male, Saturnia pavonia, Hampshire  Adrian Hoskins
Introduction
The Emperor moth is the only member of the Saturniidae found in Britain. The family is named after the ringed planet Saturn, on account of the large ringed spots that are found on the wings of most species. The Saturniidae are commonly known as wild silkmoths because most species construct elaborate silk cocoons. Several tropical species including Antheraea mylitta are commonly bred in captivity and used to produce commercial silk. The well known "silkworm moth" Bombyx mori is unrelated, belonging to a different family - the Bombycidae.
The 1500 species of Saturniidae are distributed mainly throughout the tropical regions of the world, and include the spectacular tailed Actias and Argema Moon moths, and Attacus atlas - the Giant Atlas moth, which is the largest species of moth in the world ( in terms of wing area ), measuring up to 30 cms from wing tip to wing tip.
In Europe there are 5 Saturnia species including the Emperor Saturnia pavonia, and the similar but much larger Great Peacock moth Saturnia pyri. There are also several members from other genera including the orange winged Tau Emperor Aglia tau, the Autumn Emperor Perisomena caecigena, and the Spanish Moon moth Graellsia isabellae. Additionally there are 3 introduced species - Antheraea yamamai, Antheraea pernyi and Samia cynthia.
The male and female of Saturnia pavonia are marked identically, but the male is smaller, has more brownish-pink forewings and chestnut brown hindwings, and has strongly pectinate antennae.
Emperor, female, Saturnia pavonia  Adrian Hoskins
Habitats
This is primarily a heathland and moorland species, but can be found also in woodlands and scrubby grasslands in certain areas. In Britain it is a lowland species, but it can be found at altitudes as high as 1800m in the Alps.
Lifecycle
Saturnia pavonia flies from March to July depending on locality. In southern and western Britain it usually emerges in late April, while in Scotland it typically emerges in mid-late May.
The greenish-white eggs are laid in batches of between 15-80, attached to stems or twigs on the foodplants or other nearby plants.
The caterpillar when young feeds communally, and is black with orange markings, and covered in short stiff white or black spines which emerge from tubercles on its back and sides. When older it lives solitarily and is bright green, with narrow vertical black bands between the body segments, and possesses prominent yellow tubercles from which emerge stiff hairs. It feeds primarily on heather ( Calluna ) but will also feed on a wide range of other plants including Erica, Crataegus, Rubus, Vaccinium, Salix, Betula, Potentilla and Prunus.
Pupation takes place in a pear-shaped cocoon made of coarse brown silk. The cocoon is a most fascinating object with a beautifully constructed "lobster-pot" trap door which enables the emerging moth to escape, but prevents predatory insects or spiders from entering.
Emperor, female, Saturnia pavonia  Adrian Hoskins
Adult behaviour

Female Emperor moths possess an organ at the tip of their abdomen from which they disseminate pheromones to attract the day-flying males. A single freshly emerged female can attract as many as 70 males, which can detect the pheromones from distances of a kilometre or more away, using their strongly pectinated antennae as "radar" to home in on the female.

The females are heavily laden with eggs so are unable to fly very far, and after mating lay most of their eggs very near the spot where they emerge. After laying 100 or so eggs they have lightened their load sufficiently to enable them to fly, but unlike the males they fly by night. It takes them about 2-3 days to complete egg laying.

Neither sex has a proboscis, so the moths are unable to feed, and only live until their body fats are exhausted - i.e. about 4 or 5 days.

 

 

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