New field guide rekindled my moth-er instinct

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I wear many hats as a naturalist. I enjoy learning about all aspects of nature. Recently, I added mother to my list of interests. Let me rephrase. I’m now a moth-er.

Just as birders enjoy and study birds, moth-ers enjoy and study moths.

My interest in moths is not new. I’ve often noticed the tremendous diversity of moths that gather by the porch light at night. Giant silkmoths such as lunas and cecropias are impossible to miss. Size and color almost always attract attention.

Most of the porch moths, however, are small and drab. For some reason, they never caught my interest. Perhaps it’s because there wasn’t a good field guide to moths.

A few weeks ago that changed with the publication of an excellent new field guide. Back in April, Houghton Mifflin published the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie ($29). It covers nearly 1,500 species (of North America’s 10,000-plus species) and presents them in full color.

On the facing page of each plate, range maps and detailed text describe each species. Next to each species’ name is a simple chart that indicates its season of activity. The text also lists the host species for the caterpillars of each species.

Coloring

As I reviewed the book, it became apparent that most species are drab and cryptically colored. But many, even some of the smaller species, are as colorful as some butterflies. And illustrations of many species jogged my memory of moths I had often seen, but ignored.

For example, many underwing moths perch with their drab front wings covering their colorful hind wings. By day, this is perfect camouflage. But when startled by a potential predator, they expose their bright hind wings. This often startles the predator and gives the moth just a split second head start to escape.

Avoiding predators

Similarly, some moths (io and polyphemus, for example) have large eye spots on their hind wings. These eyespots can also be flashed to frighten predators. Emerald moths use their beautiful green color to hide among leaves. Bird-dropping moths mimic, you guessed it, bird droppings. Hungry birds ignore them.

Some moths mimic stinging insects. The American hornet moth and European hornet moth fly by day and are marked by bold yellow and black bands.

Other moths commonly seen in gardens mimic hummingbirds. Hummingbird and snowberry clearwings unfurl a long proboscis to sip nectar while hovering at flowers. These moths are less than half the size of hummingbirds, but they behave just like hummingbirds. But when you see two antennae, you’ll know the critter is an insect.

And some moths rival butterflies in terms of sheer beauty. Lunas, cecropias, imperial moths, regal moths, and rosy maple moths are simply stunning.

Though the publication of this new field guide rekindled my interest in moths, it was meeting co-author Seabrooke Leckie that really hooked me.

Leckie attended the recent New River Birding and Nature Festival in southern West Virginia. Her responsibilities included conducting several evening moth trapping events. Each was well attended, and Leckie demonstrated how to attract moths using lights and white bed sheets.

Communication

It proved easy to attract moths for everyone to see, but it’s important to remember that each species “calls” (communicates chemically via pheromones) at a different time of night.

“You can’t expect to see all an area’s moths in just a few hours,” Leckie explained. “Some species call in the middle of the night, so all-nighter are required to attract the greatest number of species.”

Though most of the Peterson Field Guide to Moths is devoted to individual species accounts, several pages explain in detail how to use lights, sugar baits and white cotton sheets to attract and capture moths.

I’ve already spent several nights mothing, and I’ve discovered that attracting moths is relatively easy. Identifying them, however, can be difficult.

If you’re intrigued by the moths that gather by the porch light, pick up a copy of Moths. You probably won’t be able to identify every moth you find, but you and some lucky children can enjoy a new type of summer night time fun.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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