I ONLY GOT TO PAGE 5 of the new “Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America” before I was hooked. “Moths are everywhere,” it proclaims, and (hearing that as a challenge) I simply stood up, got my camera and went outside for a mere 10 minutes. The authors were right: Even though it was sunny midday, I photographed seven species (including the luna moth, above), and got so excited trying to ID them, I wrote to co-author Seabrooke Leckie—a stranger—and sent her my shots. The book is so good, I had managed a near-perfect score! I decided to buy two copies to share so you can get moth fever, too–but first, a Q&A with Seabrooke, about why, beyond the reason of pure fascination (a pretty good one in itself) we should open our eyes to these amazing, overlooked creatures.
Fast Moth Facts
- BUTTERFLY OR MOTH? Both are in the order Lepidoptera, and yes, most moths fly at night, but there’s a more important detail to help tell who’s who: “The easiest way to tell them apart is the antennae: is they are clubbed at the tip, it’s a butterfly; if they are threadlike and feathery, it’s a moth.”
- How many moth species are there? More than 11,000 species are currently recognized in North America alone, 1,500 of which are documented in the new guidebook.
The Q&A With Co-Author Seabrooke Leckie
A. I had gone out to British Columbia for a contract doing fieldwork with birds, and when I got there discovered the permits hadn’t yet come through. Not wanting to stray far and having exhausted all the interesting day-trips, I decided one afternoon to organize the equipment so it would be ready to go. As I rummaged through my host’s garage I flushed a largeish moth, about an inch and a half long with bright orange hindwings. (I’d later find out it was an introduced Large Yellow Underwing, but I didn’t know this at the time and was attracted by its hidden color.) My host had a blacklight and I knew I had a friend back home in Toronto in David Beadle who was very interested in moths, and since I had some time to kill I thought, what the heck. I was blown away by the diversity that came to the light that night. It took another week for our permits, and I’m pretty sure I had the blacklight out every night.
Q. You are a biologist and naturalist, and I read that you worked some years as an ornithologist – but what about moths has been the distinguishing factor for you?
A. I still do a lot of work as an ornithologist, but it’s true my non-work passion has shifted. The diversity of moths is just so much higher; I know all the birds that occur in my local landscape by both sight and sound, and there’s little left to discover there, but there is still the potential for new moth discoveries on any night. Over the course of a decade or two we might record ten times as many moth species here as bird species. David has lived at his current residence for nearly 15 years and still records new species for the property every year. Part of it, too, is that so little remains known about moths that it’s possible to have new county (sometimes even state/province) records in your own backyard. No travel involved; just turn on the lights and step out now and then to see what’s come in.
Q. I have to say some of the common names of moths species made me smile: Modest Quaker, The Penitent, The Betrothed, Impudent Hulda, Frigid Wave, Baltimore Snout. (That’s a Spiny Oak-Slug Moth on my barn door, above.) How do those come about–and which moths really “speak” to you in particular?
A. Aren’t the names wonderful? I think that was another thing that appealed to me about moths, beyond just the diversity of them: the folks who gave them their common names seemed to have a lot of fun with it. I’m not sure where a lot of the names came from. We actually coined common names for a number of species in the guide that didn’t previously have any, and I usually tried to translate the Latin scientific name–for instance, Lacinipolia vicina became Neighborly Arches from a very loose translation of vicina.
There are a number of common names that I really get a kick out of, though my favorite name is probably Cloaked Marvel. Appearance-wise, I’m a sucker for the flashy, though they don’t necessarily need to be large. Of the species I’ve seen, Hologram Moth ranks near the top, as does Harris’s Three-Spot and Giant Leopard Moth.
Q. From what is known in science today, what role do moths play in the bigger ecological picture? What questions about them do you wish we knew the answer to that remains elusive (the way I wonder what that Twin-Spotted Sphinx Moth was doing all day on my willow, above)?
A. Moths are a surprisingly important part of our environment. Probably most of us are familiar with them as pests–for instance, the clothes or pantry moths in our house. However, moths are also important pollinators, both for daytime flowers (many species are diurnal, such as the clearwing sphinx moths) and night-blooming plants (whose blossoms are almost certainly evolved to cater to nocturnal moths). The most famous example of such co-evolution between moths and night flowers is perhaps the Darwin’s Orchid with a 12-inch long nectar spur and the Morgan’s Sphinx with a 12-inch long proboscis). Moths probably also play a large role in the pollination of our crops, particularly fruit trees.
They’re also a very important part of the food chain. Many species rely on moths for some or much of their diet. Bats and some crepuscular/nocturnal birds feed on adults at night; other birds will eat adults they come across during the day. A lot of songbirds will eat caterpillars during the summer months and the nestlings of many species are raised nearly entirely on caterpillars. An example is the Evening Grosbeak, which is strongly dependent on outbreaks of Spruce Budworm (a small moth) to feed its chicks. When the forestry industry of eastern Canada started spraying for budworm in the mid-1980s, causing a massive reduction in budworm abundance, population levels of the grosbeak went into precipitous decline. Spruce Budworm numbers are now stable, albeit at a much lower level, and the grosbeak population has likewise stabilized.
And yet, for all we know about moths, there is SO much more that we don’t. For many species we lack even a good sense of their distribution. Mapping moth distribution with the accuracy found in butterfly field guides is still beyond us for most species. We have no real idea of population numbers, or population trends. Anecdotal evidence suggests that insect (including moth) abundance has been in decline the last few decades, probably as a result of an increase in pesticide use in the second half of the 20th century, but we don’t have the data to quantify it or to know what it means for us or the ecosystems we live in. A lot of energy and money goes into researching and monitoring vertebrates, especially birds, but very little attention has been paid to insects to date, other than those that have some commercial importance (such as crop pests or honeybees).
A. Yes! By far the easiest way to get started is just to turn on your porch light. But if you want to take it a little further, it doesn’t actually require a very large investment. Find yourself a white bedsheet (visit the thrift store for bargains) and pick up a blacklight bulb from your local home improvement store–Home Depot has simple CFL blacklights (sold in the light bulb aisle as a party accessory) for about $6. String up your sheet, set up the blacklight in front of it, and that’s it! It’s possible to spend a bit more on equipment, but it’s never as expensive as, say, birding. More tips can be found here on my website.
Q. Are there citizen-science activities you wish we’d help with in particular–the way many of us participate in Christmas bird counts?
A. There aren’t, in fact, very many citizen-science initiatives for insects in North America. The United Kingdom has been holding annual National Moth Nights for a number of years. This year the very first North American moth event, National Moth Week, will be held from July 23-29. While the results won’t end up in a formal database as in the UK, it’s still a great way to get out and learn more about moths.
A few websites do collect data less formally. Butterflies And Moths Of North America (BAMONA) and BugGuide are two places where you can submit your sightings to contribute to our understanding of species distribution and flight periods here in NA. BugGuide also offers an ID Request feature where you can upload a photo of an unidentified species and an expert will try to help you ID it.
Q. What are your favorite web resources, whether blogs or reference sites, that the rest of us ought to know about?
A. For moths, the websites I frequent most often are BugGuide and Moth Photographer’s Group. The latter is an excellent resource that goes beyond what our field guide is able to offer–we could only include 1500 of the more common species, but MPG has photos for most species in North America and often shows many color variations. I would also be remiss if I didn’t plug my coauthor David Beadle’s own reference site; it’s still under construction but many pages are already active.
I have a whole list of blogs I enjoy reading. One of my favorites being that of author/artist Julie Zickefoose. There are lots of other amazing nature blogs out there, though, too many for me to list here. A great place to discover new ones is at the Nature Blog Network toplist. [Note from Margaret: Seabrooke's own website has lots of wonderful posts on all aspects of nature, from baby bluebirds to (ick!) silverfish; be sure to visit her there.]
Q. What are the most-used books on your shelf, whatever the topics – plants, animals, whatever?
A. I have two field guides that seem to spend more time off the shelf than on: the “Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America” by Kenn Kaufman and Eric Eaton, and “Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates” by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. I’m also a big fan of the “Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America” and my “Sibley Guide to Birds,” which is so worn the spine’s cover has peeled off.
How to Win the Moth Guide
WANT TO EXPLORE THE WORLD OF MOTHS along with me? Buy a copy of the “Peterson Field Guide to Moths” right now, or enter to win one of two copies of I’ve bought to give away. Simply comment below, answering this question:
What’s the subject of the field guide you take off the shelf most often, or who’s the creature you find yourself reading up on or wondering about the most–whether plant or animal?
No worry if you feel shy—just say “Count me in” or the equivalent, and your entry will be considered in the random drawing that will take place after entries close at midnight, June 21.
Good luck to all.
Slideshow: My 10 Minutes of Daytime Mothing
AS I SAID UP TOP: I got all excited and couldn’t even wait till dark when I first started reading Beadle and Leckie’s new moth guide. Here are the creatures I saw on that first 10-minute outing (plus a giant cecropia moth and some moth caterpillars who visited last summer and fall). Click the first thumbnail to start the slides, then toggle using your keyboard arrows or the ones beside the captions.