Mountain Mothing

It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.

~ Vincent van Gogh

If Van Gogh is correct, then I am ripe and have found deeper meaning, at least as far as mothing is concerned. On the final night of National Moth Week, 2015, I set up the moth light on a farm gate at my parents’ home in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The habitat is very different from where I live. Besides being near the mountains and a river running out back, there is a lot more open ground than I have in my Chatham County woods. In fact, it is mostly open pasture that Dad mows for hay twice each summer. I set the UV light and sheet up along a line of trees that separates their lawn from the pasture. I really wasn’t expecting the kind of diversity I saw in my wooded yard, but wasn’t really sure what might attend the moth party.

Mayfly dun

Mayfly (click photos to enlarge)

As I had anticipated, the nearby river provided plenty of insects that spend part (or most) of their lives in the river. Several Caddisflies and numerous white Mayflies were early arrivals at the party. I was hoping for some Dobsonflies, but they were no-shows. The first couple of visits to the light showed that I was probably correct – the moth diversity, at least of those large enough for me to even attempt to identify, was much less than in the woods at home. But, there were some beetles and lots of tiny flies, and what looked like very small wasps.

Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus

Double-banded Grass-veneer – Crambus agitatellus

There were also plenty of small moths, some of which turned out to be quite beautiful  (or strange, depending on your perspective I suppose) when you take a closer look. Not surprisingly, almost all the ones I could identify are found primarily in grassy habitats, and their larvae feed on grasses. The name of one group reflects that – the Grass-veneer moths. I suppose the veneer part of the name comes from their habit of tightly clinging to grasses (usually the underside) during the day, making them tough to find unless you flush them out as you walk.

Elegant Grass-veneer - Microcrambus elegans

Elegant Grass-veneer – Microcrambus elegans

One Elegant Grass-veneer perched on my tripod next to one of the small bolts. That bolt is probably less than a half inch across so that gives you some idea of the small size of this individual. They are also distinctive in that this group tends to have long labial pals, giving them a snout-like appearance. The palps presumably function as sensory receptors of some sort.

Below are a few other species I was able to tentatively identify by flipping through my field guide and online resources. As always, any confirmations or corrections are welcome as this beginning moth-er finds it challenging.

Snowy Urola - Urola nivalis

Snowy Urola – Urola nivalis

Clover Looper - Caenurgina crassiuscula

Clover Looper – Caenurgina crassiuscula

Common Gray - Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Common Gray – Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Delicate Cycnia (Cycnia tenera)

Delicate Cycnia – Cycnia tenera  – with a hitchhiker (a small midge perhaps?)

On my last check of the sheet that night, there was a new grou of moths represented – the Tiger Moths. There were at least 6 of these boldly pattered, medium-sized moths on the sheet. I recognized the group but when I started to try to identify to species i was amazed at how similar some of them are. So much so that Bug Guide let me off the hook in trying to nail down a species identification with this statement about the difficulty of identifying some related species in this group…The only full-proof method is dissection and examination of genitalia.

Nais Tiger Moth - Apantesis nais ?

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais ?

Tiger Moth - Apantesis sp.

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais – showing underwings that help in identification

Well, then, Vincent, time to call it a night I suppose. I am not sure I am that ripe or looking for that deep of a meaning quite yet.


I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.

~Vincent Van Gogh

This week is National Moth Week, an annual celebration of the incredibly diverse and beautiful world of moths. Wednesday was a busy day out in the yard, testing some different diffusion materials for my twin lites and spending a crazy amount of time photographing the Eastern Dobsonfly I discovered resting on a tree branch. In researching the dobsonfly, I read that they are often attracted to lights at night, so it reminded me of the need to go ahead and inaugurate my new moth light. Yep, you know you are a nature nerd when you have a special light for attracting moths and other night-flying insects. The light is an ultraviolet light, since it seems, for reasons no one is quite sure about, that moths are very attracted to UV light.

moth light set up

Moth light set up (click photos to enlarge)

The set up is simple: I stretched a cotton sheet between two step ladders (most people hang a line between two trees), clamped the sheet to the ladders, hung the light on a tripod handle, and placed the tripod in front of the sheet. I then went inside and checked on the sheet periodically over the next couple of hours.

moth sheet

The moth light and sheet in action

As I expected, when I went out to check, there were an incredible number of insects on the sheet. There were two male Eastern Dobsonflies, maybe one being the same guy I photographed earlier in daylight. Then there were twenty or more decent-sized moths, the largest having about a two inch wing span. But for every moth over a half inch in size, there were probably twenty or more smaller ones. It is no wonder. There are over 2600 recognized species of moths in North Carolina, well over 15 times the number of butterflies in our state. And many of that number are very small in size, making them more difficult (for me at least) to identify. I learned a few things from those few hours of moth-watching: there are a lot of moths and a lot of different species in these woods; photographs on a moth sheet are not the most natural-looking photos; I can spend hours trying to identify moths and still not figure them all out. Luckily, there are now many excellent resources for moth-ers. The ones I found most useful for this region are:

Peterson Field Guide to Northeastern North America, David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie; North Carolina and Virginia Moth Photos (part of Will Cook’s excellent Carolina Nature web site); Moths of North Carolina (part of the excellent series of web sites hosted by NC State Parks and the NC Natural Heritage Program); Bug Guide; and the North American Moth Photographer’s Group.

The field guide has a series of moth silhouettes that can help beginners get to major groups of moths to begin the search. Once you find something similar, you can use the various web sites to help narrow it down. I am amazed at how variable some of the species can be. But, it is a whole new world out there, and these critters are all playing various important roles in the ecosystem, from devouring the leaves and flowers of many plants, to pollinating many of our flowers, to providing food for many other species from insects and spiders to birds and bats. And many are visually stunning, so it is a pleasure to discover them just outside your door. You don’t need specialized equipment to enjoy the world of the night, just the motivation to move away from whatever screen occupies your thoughts and open the door. Look around the porch light, your windows, or simply shine a flashlight amongst your plants and you can enjoy the magical world of moths.

Here are a just a few of the species that showed up at the moth light (confirmations and/or assistance with identifications are welcome):

Brown Panopoda - Panopoda carneicosta

Brown Panopoda – Panopoda carneicosta

Hypagyrtis esther – Esther Moth

Esther Moth – Hypagyrtis esther

Polygrammate hebraeicum - The Hebrew on left; Iridopsis larvaria

The Hebrew – Polygrammate hebraeicum (left; Bent Line Gray – Iridopsis larvaria (right)

Red-fringed Emerald, Nemoria bistriaria

Red-fringed Emerald – Nemoria bistriari

Tulip-tree Beauty - Epimecis hortaria

Tulip-tree Beauty – Epimecis hortaria

Splendid Palpita Moth - Palpita magniferalis ???

Tentatively identified as Splendid Palpita Moth – Palpita magniferalis

Straight-lined Plagodis Moth - Plagodis phlogosaria??

Tentatively identified as Straight-lined Plagodis Moth – Plagodis phlogosaria

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Several of the lug moths have the strange habit of pointing their abdomen skyward when at rest.

Rosy Maple Moth

One of my favorite woodland moths, a Rosy Maple Moth – Dryocampa rubicunda

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth - Anisota virginiensis - female

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth – Anisota virginiensis. This female is a little over an inch long and is surrounded by some of the tiny moths I have yet to try to identify.

Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris

One of the slug moths, the Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris, on a nearby window screen.

Unidentified - perhaps Genus Acronicta - Dagger Moths???

Unidentified – perhaps Genus Acronicta – a Dagger Moth

In addition to the many moths, a few other critters were attracted to the light:

Cixiid Planthopper

Never seen one of these before, a species of Cixiid Planthopper (I think)

Dobsonfly on moth sheet

One of the two Eastern Dobsonflies that showed up (both males)

Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper - Melanoplus punctulatus - male

A striking grasshopper, the Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper – Melanoplus punctulatus – male

Patterns on the Pages

In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy

A little I can read.

~William Shakespeare

I can read only a little, especially in the chapter on a new found interest, moths. They keep showing up (of course, I keep looking). I now have a routine of checking the screens before retiring for the night to see what might be out there. Usually, some small, tough to photograph, and even tougher for me to identify, specimens. But, every few nights, something really spectacular makes an appearance. One night last week, two large, and exquisitely patterned individuals found their way to my screen door.

Widow Underwing underside

A large moth fluttering at the screen door (click photos to enlarge)

The first was hard to ignore – a large (wing span of over 3 inches) fluttering moth with bold stripes on the underside of the hind wings. I suspected one of the Underwings, but had not seen one with primarily black and white colors on the underside before.


Widow Underwing

After a quick photo of the moth through the screen, I went out to find an intricately patterned beauty. It turned out to indeed, be one of the Underwings, Genus Catocala. This one is called the Widow Underwing, Catocala vidua. The group is so named because the genus name means “beautiful below” in Greek. Most have bold colors on their hind wings, which are usually only revealed when the moth is flying or startled. In this case, the hind wings are mainly black and white, but beautiful nonetheless, both above and below.

WIDOW UNDERWING close up of pattern

Close up of wing pattern of Widow Underwing

The muted colors and intricate pattern of the dorsal surface of the forewings most likely serves this moth well when resting on tree bark in its habitat of deciduous forests. Larvae feed on leaves of hickory, walnut, and a few other tree species.

Nearby, but much more subdued in its activity, was another beautifully patterned species.

Zale lunata

Lunate Zale Moth

This one was also relatively easy to identify – a Lunate Zale Moth, Zale lunata. Smaller (wing span about 2 inches) than the first moth, it was equally intricate in its wing design, again mimicking tree bark, but perhaps with splotches of lichen. The lunate part of its name refers to the crescent-shaped splotches along the wing edges. But, in looking at various online sources, this species can be quite variable, so I am glad this one had prominent white splotches along the wings to make identification a bit easier. Larvae feed on a variety of shrubs and trees.

Zale lunata close up of wing

Close up of Lunate Zale Moth wings

Looking closely at the patterns of these two moths helped me realize the incredible beauty and diversity of this group of insects and just reinforces my desire to learn to read more of the pages in this chapter of Nature’s book.

NOTE: When I finished writing this post, I went out to check the screens and was rewarded with a bonus – a large female Imperial Moth (measured wing span of 5 inches)…hoping she lays eggs on nearby trees.

Imperial Moth female

Imperial Moth female