It’s High Moth Season! Who Knew?

Doesn’t this moth, a Tulip Tree Beauty, look cool set against a screen?

Despite the fact that moths eat holes in my tee-shirts (I keep emptying and cleaning my drawers so where, oh where, are they hiding?!), I am fascinated by them…well, the ones that are outside anyway. Some resemble butterflies, and Hummingbird Moths, also called Clearwing Moths, look like tiny hummingbirds. Their wings move so fast, you can see through them! I often wonder if I should have studied entomology!

I found this dragonfly on the sidewalk, soaked from rain. It hung out with me for about 20 minutes, drying its wings before it flew away.

Bees feeding on flowers are fascinating to watch.
Little Miss Cicada and I bonded.
Little Miss Cicada.

I enjoyed Margaret Roach’s August 12th The New York Times article, The Pleasures of Moth-Watching It’s high moth season, and drawing you out into the dark is one of the many ways moths can enrich your life, if you let themBelow are excerpts from the article.

Summer isn’t just butterfly season and tomato season, it’s also high moth season. And while you may think that a moth garden doesn’t sound quite as enchanting as a butterfly garden, I beg to differ. Thanks to guidance from some patient experts, these days you can call me the moth gardener.

In all of North America, there are about 700 species of birds, and maybe 750 of butterflies. Moths number more than 11,000 species, with scientists regularly identifying more, particularly tiny micromoths.

Since my moth awakening, I have counted more than 175 kinds in my own garden, mostly after dark. Many are night flyers, which is why I was once oblivious to them.

Drawing you out into the dark is one of several ways that moths enrich life, if you embrace them. (Clothes moths or grain moths in the pantry — many people’s only experience of moths — are excepted from that embrace.)

The night garden is a whole different world, filled with organisms that use the cover of darkness as a tool to avoid predation. I think of these new companions — not just the obvious fireflies, but scarab beetles and caddisflies, giant millipedes and tiny, primitive bristletails and many others — as my garden’s night shift. Each is going about its business, in hopes of surviving to start a family.

Moths’ extra-special power: They will transform you into a citizen scientist, no binoculars required.

Why Focus on Moths?

“One thing that makes moths interesting is their role in the food chain,” Mr. Cipkowski said. “They’re so crucial for birds and other animals.” (Dylan Cipkowski is a field biologist surveying the moths of Columbia County, N.Y. for the nonprofit Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program.)

Many bird species, he said, rely on caterpillars as high-value food to sustain their young, while other species, including bats, spiders and birds, consume adult moths.

“Once they hear how diverse and compelling moths are, they usually want them counted, too,” Mr. Cipkowski said. “Also, the fact that they are elusive and understudied compared to other large insects gets people excited — and especially when they learn that some species are pollinators.”

Loosely speaking, Mr. Cipkowski said, butterflies could be described as a type of moth that has evolved to fly by day. That said, some moth species are day flyers, so like other typically cited distinctions, it’s not absolute.

Both are in the order Lepidoptera — from the Greek for “scaled wings” — as they are covered in microscopic scales that serve various functions, including making escape from a sticky spiderweb possible. Losing a few scales beats losing your life.

Most moths have feathery antennae. Butterflies’ threadlike antennae are usually clubbed at the ends. At rest, moths generally hold their wings open, either flat or tented over their bodies; most butterflies hold theirs closed overhead.

A majority of adult butterflies draw nectar from flowers. Certain moths do, too. But at the other extreme, some moths (including silk moths like the luna, cecropia and polyphemus) do not feed in their short adult phase, focusing only on reproduction.

I asked one of the authors of that question in 2012, when the book was published.

“One of the fascinating things about moths, as a group, is that if it in any way resembles a plant, there’s a moth that eats it,” said Seabrooke Leckie, a Canadian biologist who wrote the guide “Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America” and a subsequent Southeastern volume with David Beadle.

“The diversity of moths and butterflies is partially a reflection of a site’s botanical community,” he said. “It can work both ways: You can be in a particular vegetation zone and then see the moths — or see what the moth community looks like first, and get an idea of what the vegetation is.”

“Moths are everywhere,” the Peterson guide begins — which is particularly true on warm evenings, as far from light pollution as possible. The visitors you get will change throughout the season; different species have distinct flight periods.

Flipping on the porch light will attract some customers, but here’s a better way: Outdoors, on a wall or using rope, stretch a white cotton sheet within extension-cord range of an electric outlet. Plug in a clamp-on light socket fitted with an inexpensive CFL black light bulb. (A reminder: Light pollution at night is a major killer of insects, particularly moths, contributing to global insect decline, so if you have security lights, operate them on a motion sensor, or switch bulbs to yellow LEDs, which are less attractive to insects.)

Have a headlamp? Take a garden stroll, plotting a course for tubular flowers.

“A way to see the moths is looking at deep-throated flowers on summer nights, like Monarda, that the sphinx moths nectar at,” Mr. Cipkowski said. Phlox paniculata is another target.

The best part, he said: “If you have a headlamp on, you’ll see their eyeshine.”

You likely have caught larger glimpses of deer or raccoon eyeshine in the headlights, the work of specialized tissue called tapetum. This reflective surface behind the retina improves the odds that, in a lowlight world, essential visual information can be processed effectively, eye to brain.

My layperson’s explanation: The tapetum offers a second look, bouncing incoming information back like a mirror, another chance for light to be absorbed if the eye’s photoreceptor layer didn’t fully take it in at first. A do-over, evolved to manage in the realm of night.

Careful, or as with bird-watching, you’ll start playing favorites. Mr. Cipkowski and I both love the group called underwings (genus Catocala), whose forewings are marbled in neutral grays and tans like antique book endpapers, rendering them unseen on tree bark.

Nudge one wing ever so gently aside with a fingertip, though, and you’ll reveal hindwings patterned like colorful petticoats — often striped in brown and gold, reddish or orange, a peekaboo costume befitting the brashest strumpet.

You never know what you’ll see in the dark.

“To be up at night, outside, mostly just sitting there, while it was pretty quiet,” Mr. Cipkowski said, “with the only sounds the insects batting against the sheet sometimes, and an occasional owl — it’s really a different perspective on the natural world.”

So don’t be afraid. Take a walk in the dark.

Margaret Roach

Sources: MassAudubon,  Insect Identification for the Casual Observer

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