why moths matter (and how to get to know them), with seabrooke leckie

IT WAS ALMOST SIX YEARS ago to the day that I had my moth epiphany thanks to Seabrooke Leckie, who in 2012 co-authored the “Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America,” and joined me on my radio program then to tell me about it. Why get excited about moths you ask? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

Seabrooke Leckie is a Canadian-based biologist with a special interest in moths, and with David Beadle, she has created another Peterson Field Guide on moths, this time featuring the species of Southeastern North America. We talked about why you should sharpen your focus on them as she got me to: because they’re pollinators, are food for birds (especially in their caterpillar stage) and most of all, are just plain amazing (that’s a Clinton’s underwing, above, showing off its secret weapon against predation).

Read along as you listen to the April 30, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

getting to know moths, a q&a with seabrooke leckie



Q. Seabrooke, I can’t tell you how much you’ve changed my life as a gardener.

A. I’m pleased to hear that.

Q. You were a big influencer for me. I thought I knew everything about what was going on out in my backyard, but I did not, until I met you and your book. [Laughter.]

A. There’s a lot out there that you don’t know about until you start poking around.

Q. Indeed. You know, I knew my frogs and my snakes, and a lot of my insects. I didn’t know my moths at all, and I still come nowhere near close to your knowledge. But at least I’m looking. I have my eyes open.

A. Yes. Well that’s where you start, right?

Q. Yes. So congratulations on the latest book. What percent of the species would you say overlap between the volumes, and how many are in it and so forth?

A. Well in the Northeastern book, there’s about 1,500 species or so, and in the Southeastern one, there’s a little over 1,800 species, just because the South is a lot more diverse.

Because you have Florida specialties and Texas specialties. There’s a fair bit of overlap. There’s more overlap in the regions than we put in the books. We did that intentionally, removed some stuff that occurs at the northern boundary of the Southeast that was in the Northeastern book already, in order to make room for more species from the Southeast, more specialties and stuff.

Q. Yes.

A. So if you’re on that borderline, it helps to have both books. But even allowing for that, probably about half the book is overlap. There’s a fair number of species that occur quite widely throughout the East. But there’s still, there’s a lot that are just Florida, just Southern Gulf Coast specialties. And it was a lot of fun working on those, and getting to see all that stuff that’s not familiar from my backyard.

Q. And knowing since 2012 the Northeastern book, as I paged through the Southeastern one—you know, I have visual memory only probably.

A. Yes.

Q. And so I was like, “Ooh, what’s that? What’s that?” Because I could tell the ones that I’d never seen before.

A. Yes.

Q. So that was kind of cool. So Southeast doesn’t mean just like the Carolinas and Virginia or whatever, but it means like North Carolina down to Florida, and like Oklahoma down to Texas, and that whole area kind of in between. So it’s big.

A. Yes.

Q. Yes. And so, with between the two volumes, you’ve really got, what almost east of the Rockies, almost the whole country east of the Rockies except for the far Midwest.

A. Yes. Well east of the Great Plains. It’s all the-

Q. East of the Great Plains, O.K.

A. Yes, the forested areas. There’s a little bit of the Great Plains in there, but it’s primarily east of the grasslands.

Q. Yes. So for gardeners who haven’t sort of geeked out on moths like you’ve gotten me to do [laughter], and since we’re speaking to an audience of gardeners today, why do you, a real moth expert, why do you want us to get excited about and interested in moths? What do they have to commend them?

A. Well, O.K., so there’s two aspects to that that I could recommend moths by. First is they’re great pollinators. This is not always necessarily depending on what you’re growing. But they are great pollinators that you’ll find a lot of them will visit your flowers during the day or at night. If you have phlox for instance in your garden, and you go out at dusk, you’ll often see sphinx moths, which are big, hummingbird-sized-almost moths visiting your phlox. Or there’s a few species of flowers that they’ll come to.

But anything that’s strong smelling with a lot of nectar. Or you’ll get just smaller moths will come to fruit trees and they are great pollinators for that sort of thing. So they’re valuable as a gardener in helping your garden, in addition to bees and other more traditional pollinators. But they’re also, probably a lot of gardeners are going to be familiar with for instance the hornworms, or the cabbage, cabbage worms. [Above, Southern purple mint moth.]

Q. Yes.

A. And a lot of the pests that are, we see as caterpillars in the gardens. But knowing what they turn into I think will give you a better appreciation of who’s in your garden. So it’s a hornworm that’s destroying your tomato plant, but if you see the sphinx moth that it turns into, maybe you’ll designate one tomato can be the hornworm’s plant. The rest will be yours, sort of thing.

Q. [Laughter.] That’s funny.

A. Yes. They’re really amazing moths. The caterpillars are kind of maybe not what you want in the garden, but the moths themselves are amazing when you see them. So I think that knowing a little bit more about the adult life stage can really help you appreciate what’s in your garden, both as a caterpillar but also as what you’re not seeing because they’re all out at nighttime.

Q. You know, it’s interesting, because as a bird person, when you say caterpillars, I’m thinking “bird food, bird food!”

A. [Laughter.] Yes.

Q. Because that’s a great thing.

A. Yes.

Q. And actually probably moths, probably there are many birds who probably gobble up an adult moth too. I don’t know specifics.

A. Yes.

Q. But I do know that as we always repeat, that caterpillars are the sort of baby food of the songbird set. You know what I mean?

A. Yes.

Q. It’s the very rich, nutrient-dense edible for baby songbirds.

A. That’s true.

Q. So that’s great thing, too.

A. Yes. Definitely. If you enjoy having the birds in your yard, encouraging insects and other little creatures to make their homes in your yards is a good thing as well.

Q. Yes. Both books open with a statement, “Moths are everywhere.”

A. Yes.

Q. And again, something I didn’t even really know, something I didn’t know to look for until I got your first book. So how many species say compared to I don’t know butterflies or birds or whatever. How many species of moths. You just mentioned how many are in each volume of this book. But how many are there in North America or U.S. or however you want to look at it?

A. So there’s a little over 700 species of birds, and maybe about 750 species of butterflies in all of North America. But in contrast, there’s about 11,000 species of moths, and we’re always finding more. So it’s an order of magnitude bigger.

So there’s this great diversity of moths, and it’s attached to the food plants, where because there’s so many different types of plants out there. Like birds have to be broader generalists; they’re not attached to a single organism the way-

Q. Like a host plant of something. Right.

A. Yes, the way host plants are for moths. But a moth that only eats, for instance, evening primrose, leaves a lot of room ecologically, in terms of niches, for other species of moths. So it allows broader diversity of species to exist compared to other organisms like birds.

Q. So like all my frugivorous birds, the thrushes, catbirds, and so forth, waxwings. They might all be competing for the same crabapple fruits or holly fruits or whatever.

A. Yes, exactly.

Q. But that’s not the case here, in many cases.

A. No, there’s a lot more niche specialty with moths, and with insects in general. But particularly I see it with moths.

Q. So one of the anecdotes I’ll share that after you turned me on to moths and I started going out in the dark and putting on blacklights, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit, too, and putting up a sheet and counting. And you know, I don’t know what I was doing, but whatever, I tried. And I found that I, in the first year or two, I found maybe, I took pictures of maybe 140-something species. And this person across the county from me—I’m in a rural county in New York State, Columbia County New York—wrote to me and said, “Hello. My name is so-and-so. I work at such-and-such. Could I have your data?”

A. Right.

Q. And I was like, what are you talking about? [Laughter.] I don’t… I’m just a gardener. What is data? And he said, “No. Your photos are data. They’re data.” And he works for this Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, this entity that’s doing the moths of Columbia County, of my county—it’s one of the things that they’re doing.

And they found like 600 and something so far that they’ve documented in the last couple of years, including some of mine that didn’t duplicate. But what they’ve said is probably we could find around 1,200 just in this one little rural county in New York.

A. Yes.

Q. That historical records indicate. I’m just using that as an example of the numbers are so staggering. Whereas in my garden, I see 65, 68 species of birds each year, different species of birds.

A. I was going to add to that when you asked about the numbers that in an average backyard, like a rural backyard, over the course of say a decade living there, you might get, if you’re lucky 100 species of birds if you have a very diverse space. But if you’ve got again, that same diverse space of habitat in your yard, you can have 1,000 species of moths in your yard.

Q. I’ve got a ways to go. [Laughter.]

A. Yes. I’ve actually documented, we’ve just got a little over half an acre yard here, but it’s a rural one with woods along one side, but I’ve already got about 500 species, 600 species documented here, and I know, we’ve only been here a few years.

Q. That’s great.

A. So I know there’s lots out there.

Q. So each one, besides, and there’s a lot of them, and besides each having a taxonomic, a Latin name, genus and species, they also have a number. I guess there’s actually two numbering systems. But the number I’m thinking about is the Hodges Number, to identify them. And it’s named after a man who invented the system for such organization. And I sadly read recently his obituary. Ronald Hodges died in December.

A. Yes.

Q. But what really struck me in the obituary was in speaking about him, people mentioned of course this contribution that he made about moths, but also that he was a keen gardener and he was as proud of his garden. So I felt this, like-

A. Oh, that’s neat.

Q. Isn’t that cool? I didn’t know that.

A. Yes. I didn’t know that about him.

Q. Yes. He loved his garden, and it delighted him, his garden. So I just wanted to say, add that in.

So with birds and even butterflies, I sort of know when I expect to see them, what time of year I’m going to see so and so show up and then leave again. Do moths have that too? Do they come and go?

A. They sure do. Sort of like any insect, that they have, or most insects have very defined flight periods where you’re likely to see the adults. Of course, the organism itself is around year round in some life stage or another, whether it’s caterpillars or eggs or whatever. But the adults themselves have very specific windows where they can be seen.

So with moths, there are a number that they’re constantly laying eggs and raising caterpillars, and you’ll see them year round. But there a lot of them that you might only see for two weeks or three weeks out of the entire year.

Q. Wow.

A. They have very narrow, very narrow flight periods.

Q. So that’s probably why people think that insects, so like moths for instance, have such a short life cycle, because they maybe only see the adult for a brief time-

A. Yes.

Q. …even though it might’ve been a longer life cycle overall. Like you’re saying it’s maybe an egg, and it’s a larvae—it’s in these different stages.

A. Yes. A lot of them go into these sort of, I forget the technical phrase for it, but it’s sort of a life cycle pause, where-

Q. Like diapause?

A. Yes, where they’re not developing like eggs over the winter, where they’re sort of in stasis or there’s a number of species of butterflies, like you’d be familiar with mourning cloaks.

Q. Yes.

A. They will spend the winter as an adult, and so they’re sort of in, they’re in hibernation mode and so they’re not aging the same way they would over the summer. So there’s, it’s not mourning cloaks, might be commas, where there’s two broods, and the summer brood ages much more quickly and they only last two or three months, and then the winter brood can live for seven months potentially, because so much of it is spent in that diapause.

Q. And you know, I don’t know if it’s called diapause in tadpoles, but there are some species of frogs that that stage, that in between stage between egg and adult is-

A. Yes.

Q. It can last longer depending on when they were hatched, so to speak, and they kind of climb.

A. Yes. And they take two years to turn into frogs or whatever.

Q. So I’m always startled, you know you mentioned about flight periods, and I’m always startled normally it’s around mid-February, and I’m in Zone 5B, cold. It’s winter-y then still. Or certainly it’s in March, I’m startled to see on the side of my barn where the light is on at night, the next morning, or even at night, to see moths.

A. Yes.

Q. So what’s with that?

A. Even in the middle of winter sometimes. Yes.

Q. And I read in the Bernd Heinrich book recently, “Winter World,” that I reread-

A. Yes.

Q. ..he talks about the winter moths, and I’m like how can this be? How can they survive?

A. So they’re, these are, as I was saying about the butterflies, these are species that spend the winter as adults. And so they tuck themselves into little nooks or crannies, or sometimes the side of your buildings, or in the bark of trees. And on really sunny, warm days, sometimes in the middle of winter, but usually towards the end of winter, when their hiding place gets warmed up enough, they become active, and you’ll come out and see them. So that’s why you’re seeing them in February, because in those very first early thaws, very first early warm days, they’re starting to come out of their hibernation and then they’re the first ones out.

Q. O.K.

A. There are a number of species that are, they spend the winter as very, caterpillars that are very far along their life stage, because they go through many instars, many developmental stages, and so they’ll spend the winter in the last one. So they still need to pupate, but they’ll be out very early. But the ones that you’re actually seeing very first in February, March, they’ll spend the winter as an adult generally.

Q. Oh, because I sent you some pictures.

A. Yes.

Q. I’m always pestering you with pictures.

A. I had a look at those. So there’s two species that you had, that you sent me there. It was the very common ones to see first thing in the spring. But they look a little like butterflies, but they hold their wings backwards sort of in a triangle shape instead of flat.

And they’re, there’s Phigalia, which are the three species in the East, and cankerworms, so the spring cankerworms, and yours I think were white-dotted cankerworms that are both very early—one of the first things that you’ll see in March or the early, early months. And they’re common. I just had my first ones last week actually at my lights. [Above, left to right, Phigalia and white-spotted cankerworm moth at Margaret’s in late winter.]

Q. And this year it was the latest it’s ever been in the years that I’ve been observing, which is only like six years that I’ve been observing, but because of this tenacious winter.

A. Yes. Oh, we just had such a long winter, didn’t we?

Q. Terrible. Terrible.

A. Yes. So everything’s late.

Q. So that kind of, you know, it’s like I feel there’s hope when I see them, you know, just like if I see a mourning cloak butterfly, I feel like there’s hope, you know?

A. Yes. It’s a really great sign of spring. Those really first early days when I put my light out for the first time, and you see those. They’re so familiar. You see them every year and they’re so common. You had dozens at your light in that one photo.

Q. Yes.

A. They’re so common, and yet they’re such a familiar welcome sign of spring. They’re like an old friend returning after a long vacation.

Q. Yes, and way before the migrating birds would come back or anything like that.

A. Yes, it is really great to see them.

Q. So what are some, for beginners, when we’re going to get started looking, what are some … I mean, there are so many interesting moths, and I don’t know whether they’re all families, or what group they are of moths—but people are probably always looking for the spectacular, like a luna or cecropia. But there’s ones that I guess are called underwings—they almost have like a hidden, hot-colored petticoat or something underneath maybe more drab wings. [Above, scarlet underwing.]

A. Yes. That’s a great description.

Q. What’s that, what’s that about—I mean, there’s so many interesting moths to look for.

A. There’s a lot of them, and this was one of the things that really attracted me to moths to start with, because when I first got into them I didn’t really know much about them. I had a friend, Dave Beadle, who knew moths, but I didn’t know a lot about them, and so I put the light out the first night that I did it, and I was on my own at the time, and I was just astounded by the diversity that came in.

There was no guide, no real printed guide at the time that really showcased them well. So I had no idea what to expect. And as you say, there’s such incredible diversity beyond just the ones that we’re familiar with as part of pop culture like the luna moth that you see in for instance, sleep ads all the time.

So there’s the underwings, in which their front wings are actually designed so when they keep their wings closed, they blend into tree bark or whatever they’re sitting on, so it’s camouflaged. But then, if they’re startled, they flip their wings open and they show this bright pink, bright orange or yellow hindwing—underwing—and it startles the predators hopefully enough to allow them to get away.

Q. Oh, that’s what it’s for.

A. Yes.

Q. O.K., cool. I didn’t know that.

A. Yes. So there’s a few species like that. Or the io moth, which is actually a species of silk moth similar to cecropia, but much smaller.

That’s got a similar thing. It’s got an eyespot on the hindwing. They flip open their hindwings and it looks like a pair of owl eyes. But besides those, there’s even just small little guys that are maybe an inch or half an inch long that have incredible colors. There’s pinks and yellows and purples, and greens. And there’s stuff that you don’t see in very many butterflies. It’s not common in butterflies at all.

Q. You mentioned greens, and for instance there’s one that I see a lot in summer, the bristly cutworm [above], and it has these green spots on it, and it almost looks plant-like or moss-like. Do you know what I mean?

A. Yes.

Q. So it’s odd.

A. And it’s another camouflage thing, because it would obviously blend into the little moss spots, little lichen spots on places where it hides during the day.

Q. Very effective. Yes. How can people start getting tuned into them? You mentioned lights; I mentioned lights. What would be like the most basic thing to do? You said when you first started …

A. Well, so I got into it because I was doing bird-banding, and we had a lot of specialized equipment. But you don’t need special equipment to really get into it. You can, it’s as easy really as just turning on your porch light, to be honest. But the incandescent bulbs that we often use in porch lights or home lights, they’ve got a very narrow spectrum of wavelengths, light wavelengths.

Q. Yes.

A. And what you ideally would like in order to attract moths in is something with UV wavelengths. So CFLs, just common ones, everyday ones, have a little bit of that wavelength in their output because of the mercury that’s in the bulb.

So if you put a CFL into your porch light, you can probably attract a few species in. Or if you have a security light, like a mercury bulb or a sodium vapor bulb, those are really great, too, for that reason. Helping out with that is using a cotton sheet or a natural-fiber white sheet, because it’s, if you think about parties under black lights, and how the white glows. It’s glowing because of the UV wavelengths. And if you have a sheet out, it sort of broadens the available surface area that the moths are attracted to.

And if they’re coming into your light, they’ll land on your sheet. So even just tacking up a pillowcase underneath your porch light or something like that gives them a little bit more of a surface area to draw them in. So it’s really simple, and it uses stuff that you’ve got around the house anyway. Obviously if you want to get really fancy about it, you can spend a lot of money on it just like with any hobby.

Q. Sure.

A. But just to get started, it’s really simple.

Q. And I think it’s great for kids. I think it’s great to show this to kids. And you know what I mean, it’s not a big investment to pin up a pillowcase and change to a CFL bulb or a blacklight CFL even.

A. And kids love it.

Q. They love it.

A. I’ve done the same thing with my kids.

Q. Yes.

A. And for instance, we gathered up tent caterpillars last summer and we let them pupate, and she just loved that.

Q. And so you would kind of hatch them out in jars or something?

A. Yes, yes. I just kept them in a jar with little holes in it. And we got them when they were leaving the nests and going across trees and stuff. So they were looking for some place to pupate anyway. And we let them pupate in the jar. And it takes about a week or so for them to pupate. And when they emerged, we let them go. And she got to hold them and let them go, and she was really into that.

Q. So National Moth Week’s going to come up in July, right? I’ve been hosting, I hire entomologists to come and lead the group, but hosting it in my state park right adjacent to my house, this will be our fifth annual one on July 28th, but where will you be for National Moth Week this year, with the new book? [Note: Tickets for Moth Night in Copake Falls, NY, go on sale in May and will be announced on the website here.]

A. Probably here at home.

Q. O.K. [Laughter.]

A. Just because I’ve got the small kids at the moment. I would love to get out. Couple years ago, I was down at Mothapalooza in the summer, which is a-

Q. Oh that’s another great one, right.

A. It is a great conference that’s held in Ohio every year. Or I think they skipped this year, but almost every year. So I love traveling. I love seeing new moths. But yes, I’ve just got the small kids. I’ve got a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, so I’m not doing a lot of traveling these days, but soon.

Q. Well, I don’t know how you managed to do this book then with that on top of everything else. But thank you so much for it, and thank you for making the time, Seabrooke, to talk again.

enter to win your choice of moth guide

I’LL BUY whichever volume you choose of the “Peterson Field Guide to Moths” by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie (Southeast or Northeast) for one lucky reader. To enter to win, just comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, answering this question:

Are there any moths you have become tuned into in your garden–or are their cousins the butterflies still catching all your attention?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, May 7, 2018. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 30, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos except as noted from Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America; used with permission.)

  1. territalarekking says:

    Moths are fascinating, yet confusing to me! The diversity is amazing. This summer I want to set up the sheets-and-backlight so I can learn more about them.

  2. Gayle Chatfield says:

    Oh, thank you for this moth info! I can really use this guide as I volunteer and teach about gardens, plants and insects and how they support each other in the wild. Birds really need moths and their caterpillars, as made clear by Doug Tallamy, whose work I quote a lot. Your blog is the only blog I take the time to read, and I have enjoyed learning so much more. (And those snap mousetraps you recommended are the most amazing things – thanks for them, too!) I can’t wait to try the white sheet this summer.

  3. Jan Douglas says:

    Interesting to see moths as important contributors rather than in-the-way around the lights as night nuisances! But there is the clothes closet! Ugh!

  4. Jan Douglas says:

    Nice to see these insects as contributors rather than around-the-lights at night nuisances. But then there is still the clothes closet! Ugh!

  5. Teresa says:

    Moths and butterflies remind me of how unfair Mother Nature can be. Moths do all the heavy lifting and are typically rather bland in coloring, just as female birds tend to be more subtle in coloring.

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