This summer I started paying much closer attention to moths than ever before. Most of us don’t think about these critters unless we’re swatting them away from the porch light so they don’t get into our houses. We rarely stop to look at them, much less to think about their role in the ecosystem. But they’re often just as pretty as their daytime counterparts, the butterflies, and just as important.
Along with being a popular food for birds, moths serve the same purpose as butterflies and many other insects: to pollinate plants. But most of them do this important work under cover of darkness, while we’re snug in our beds. One easy way to enter the world of night-flying moths is to leave your porch lights on and study the insects that come to rest on the walls or windows. It’s also popular these days to shine a black light on a white sheet, or even put out moth bait, to attract a wider variety of species.
I’ve put out my black light a few times this year (without too much success), but have also found lots of different moths just by walking around in my yard and seeing what flies out of the vegetation around me. For example, I found this plume moth while mowing the yard just a week ago:
These little “fighter jets” with their rolled-up wings are fairly common in my yard, and I can never resist trying for a better photo of them. There are almost 150 species of plume moths in North America, and I can’t identify this one.
Moth identification involves a steep learning curve, even when you’re equipped with good resources, as I think I am. My primary print source is the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, by David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie. Online I use the North American Moth Photographers’ Group at Mississippi State University. I also belong to a Facebook group called “Mothing Ohio,” where I can ask for help when needed.
Imagine finding something like this and having to flip through photos of thousands of similar brown moths:
It’s one thing if the moth is relatively “fresh” and unworn, so the markings are still clear. It gets much more difficult when they’re faded and tattered.
Some moths are diurnal, or daytime feeders. And so far, it seems that the diurnal moths are generally easier to identify. For instance, here’s one I found feeding on mums in my yard in late October:
This is a Corn Earworm Moth (Helicoverpa zea), clearly in a very worn and faded state near the end of its life. You can still see faint markings on the tattered wings, vague remnants of its earlier beauty.
Another daytime-feeder I really like is the Yellow-collared Scape Moth shown here:
And here’s the similar-looking Virginia Ctenucha moth:
This Ailanthus Webworm moth is diurnal too, and not native to this part of the country but now fairly common here.
I’ll save some of my other moths for another time, but I just have to share these photos of a spectacular moth I just photographed for the first time yesterday. This is the Buck Moth, a daytime flyer with bold markings of black, white, and orange. On my first outing to see this species a few days earlier, I’d seen dozens of them flying erratically around a meadow, sometimes bumping clumsily into branches and tall grasses. But we couldn’t find any resting ones to take photos of on that day.
But this time we got there early enough that some of them weren’t yet flying, and we found this one still roosting on a small sapling where it was easy to photograph from inches away. We spent a good five minutes taking shots of this gorgeous male before he finally woke up and flew off to join the other males in search of females. The adult moths don’t have functional mouth parts and cannot feed. Their only task is to reproduce and then die, leaving their eggs to overwinter so the caterpillars can emerge the following spring.
After this one flew off, we were able to net a couple other individuals. I was captivated as I got to hold one in my hand and feel his furry little body as he gently walked up my arm. He almost made it up to my shoulder before suddenly taking flight and zigzagging back out on his mating mission.
All of the moths in these photos were found in Lucas County in northwestern Ohio, either in my yard or in the various metroparks and nature preserves. There’s such diversity represented here already, and I know there are a gazillion more species out there just waiting for me to find them and show them to you!