by Braeden Rose ’21
Most people tend to have a hobby such as taking photographs, collecting baseball cards, hiking, dancing, cooking, painting, playing video games, writing, playing a sport, playing an instrument, or shopping.
None of those really seemed to strike a chord with sophomore Evan Banning. Instead, he likes something a bit more uncommon — raising and breeding caterpillars and moths.
Ever since Evan visited the Magic Wings booth at the Hartford Flower Show when he was four years old, he has been deeply interested in raising and breeding these insects, and each February he returns to the Connecticut Convention Center, where the show is held, to buy more and more supplies.
“I typically just buy cocoons and chrysalises there, but if I need a new enclosure for them then I’ll get one,” he said. Evan estimates that he spends anywhere from $100–300 at the Magic Wings booth alone, and may end up spending more elsewhere depending on the year.
Evan said the first time he went to the Hartford Flower Show was because my mom wanted to go, and they just kept going back because he really enjoyed it. As a younger kid, Evan enjoyed raising the butterflies and moths because they looked cool, but as he has grown older they have become more and more alluring to him.
“As a kid, I wasn’t the one really raising them, but when I got older I became more independent and it started to be my project, not my parents’,” he said. He said his mom still helps him gather supplies in the summer sometimes, like certain plants that the caterpillars need to survive.
When most people think of moths, they typically envision the small grey ones that are seen in the summer months, usually congregating around some light source. Most months, however, aren’t like that. The ones that Evan raises are around the size of butterflies, usually larger, and they have interesting and sometimes colorful patterns on their wings.
Evan prefers raising moths to butterflies because he sees them as more interesting and more of a challenge. “They’re cooler than butterflies. Besides, when was the last time you saw a Luna moth in the wild?” Evan said, referring to one of the species of moths that he raises.
Evan typically raises local species because they live off of the local plants, but sometimes he’ll challenge himself and raise a species that isn’t native to the US, like the atlas moth. “It’s the biggest moth in the world, and it’s very difficult to raise because it’s from Indonesia,” he said.
Evan explained that each species of moth and caterpillar has what’s called a host plant, or multiple. The moth or butterfly will only eat leaves from their host plants, so non-native species pose more of a challenge because Evan has to find some way to get a host plant for them. “I’ve read some studies that have said the Atlas moth will also eat the leaves of sweet gum trees, which can be grown here,” Evan said.
Evan said that the fun is mostly in raising the moths, but he doesn’t really form an emotional attachment with the moths. “They’re not like, pets,” he said.
Besides, getting attached to the moths would be pointless, because they don’t have mouths. “They die from starvation around a week after emerging from their cocoons,” he said. “They can’t eat so they just fly around looking for a mate until they die.”
While raising these insects is mostly a hobby, Evan actually makes money off of it, too. He sells most of the moths that he raises, in the egg stage and the cocoon stage. “You don’t really sell them as caterpillars because they need to eat, and they’ll die in transit if they’re caterpillars,” he said. Evan mentioned that a dozen moth eggs typically sell for $6-$8, plus seven dollars shipping (transport needs to be prompt so they don’t hatch en route and die). However, a single moth cocoon can sell for $6-$8, plus $7 shipping. The profit can add up quickly, he said.
Evan’s niche hobby is also landing him internships with top insect experts. After inquiring about the entomology program at UConn, Evan and his family were invited on a private tour of the department where he was invited to work alongside Prof. David Wagner, head of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut.
“He’s written books and everything; he’s an expert,” Evan said, “I think we’ll be doing field work: collecting and studying them. If I’m lucky we’ll get to work with live specimens.”
Evan said that he has thought about becoming an entomologist and that the discipline has practical applications, too. “They’re working on genetics and biodiversity, to name a few,” he said.