Pandora Moths

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

This summer Nature Notes was at Crater Lake, again, when someone mentioned Pandora Moths at the Sinnott Center overlook. As my more erudite listeners know, Pandora of Greek mythology was the first woman on earth created by Hephaestus (he-FEE-stus) on orders from Zeus with contributions from other gods to make her all-gifted, which is

what Pandora means in English. Of course, she had her famous box, which she just had to open. Out flew all sorts of unpleasantness, what didn’t leave was hope. Nature Notes wonders why the moth was named Coloradia pandora.

A late afternoon trip down the steps from Crater rim to the overlook revealed several

hundred, big, dark headed, grayish winged moths clustered on the walls around the entrance to the display area. What are these creatures of the night? Well, they are native moths that occasionally impact forest products and whose life history played a role in the lives of some Native American tribes.

Pandora moths are found in parts of the intermountain west, usually associated with pines of various species, especially ponderosa, Jeffrey, and lodgepole. Their life cycle is typical of moths and butterflies with complete metamorphosis. The adults mate, fly about, lay eggs that then hatch into larvae (hear spiny caterpillars here), that eat vegetation (in this case pine needles). After storing up enough energy, mature larvae crawl down tree trunks to the soil where pupate and eventually change into the adult form, which then emerges, and the cycle continues.

Tree ring researchers have discovered episodic moth outbreaks of considerable size by correlating poor growth patterns from known, modern moth events with similar patterns in the past. Over a 662-year period, they discovered 22 individual moth outbreaks ranging from 9 to 156 years apart. Lots of caterpillars, lots of pupae, lots of nutritional value.

Native Americans in the area, the Northern Paiutes for example, took advantage of this source of energy in ways that make modern inhabitants of the intermountain west quiver and shiver. The Native Americans ate the caterpillars and the pupae.

My friend Ron Mastrogiuseppe tells a story about controlled burns at Lava Beds National Monument. After fire burned away the duff, pine needles, and debris, circular trenches 3 to 5 inches deep were discovered around pine trees. Later he happened upon an article that explained that this way hungry Native Americans trapped caterpillars in trenches.

The caterpillars were roasted by mixing them in hot sand, and, after cleaning, made into a vegetable stew that was a “tasty, nutritious food that is especially good for sick people, much like our chicken soup,” according to two modern researchers. When they weren’t roasting caterpillars, they were collecting pupae, which they also cooked and ate. Nature Notes is pretty sure that if you didn’t know and could not tell what was in the food, you might say, Umm, umm, good, Umm, umm good.

Nature Notes is on a roll, next week fly pupae are on the menu, and Pandora is still a mystery.

Archeological Value: The Paiute Indians harvested larvae of piagi (Pandora moth [Coloradia pandora]), which cyclically attack Jeffrey pine, by digging trenches encircling the trunks of mature trees. These piagi trenches may still be seen surrounding some of the larger Jeffrey pines, although their evidence has been largely obliterated by logging and other disturbance in adjacent areas.

In several localities, pandora moth caterpillars (Coloradiapandora) are still harvested by elderly Paiute. Called piuga by the Indians, the caterpillars feed primarily on the needles of the Jeffery pine and when fully grown descend the tree trunk to pupate in the soil. They sometimes occurred in great numbers and were collected in trenches dug around the bases of the trees. They were then roasted by mixing them with hot sand. Piuga is regarded by the Paiute as “a tasty, nutritious food that is especially good for sick people, much like our chicken soup,” according to Elizabeth Blake and Michael Wagner12, two researchers at the University of Northern Arizona. In former times, according to the late E. O. Essig13 (formerly an entomologist at the University of California-Berkeley), hungry whites who tasted piuga claimed that boarding with the early Californians “on the American plan was not so good.”

 — Dr. Frank Lang 

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