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 (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.
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
Esther Moth – Hypagyrtis esther
The Hebrew – Polygrammate hebraeicum (left; Bent Line Gray – Iridopsis larvaria (right)
Red-fringed Emerald – Nemoria bistriari
Tulip-tree Beauty – Epimecis hortaria
Tentatively identified as Splendid Palpita Moth – Palpita magniferalis
Tentatively identified as Straight-lined Plagodis Moth – Plagodis phlogosaria
Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Several of the lug moths have the strange habit of pointing their abdomen skyward when at rest.
One of my favorite woodland moths, a Rosy Maple Moth – Dryocampa rubicunda
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.
One of the slug moths, the Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris, on a nearby window screen.
Unidentified – perhaps Genus Acronicta – a Dagger Moth
In addition to the many moths, a few other critters were attracted to the light:
Never seen one of these before, a species of Cixiid Planthopper (I think)
One of the two Eastern Dobsonflies that showed up (both males)
A striking grasshopper, the Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper – Melanoplus punctulatus – male