Summer Magic in Barb’s Yard

By Barb Elliot

When I leave my house to explore my backyard, whether by day or after dark, I enter another world.  Transported from daily cares, I anticipate experiencing the wonders of nature. What’s happening at this season? What creatures will I encounter?  What mysteries will unfold?  I am rarely disappointed. Life is abundant in my yard because the numerous native plants I’ve planted meet the food and shelter needs of many animals.

This summer I photographed some of what I observed.  Here are highlights.  Enlarge any photo by clicking on it. 

Early Summer

Interesting pollinators gather nectar and/or pollen from my Highbush Blueberry flowers, including a Flower Longhorn Beetle  and an unknown flower fly – a good Yellow Jacket wasp mimic.  A native Green Sweat Bee on a Black-eyed Susan is covered with yellow pollen grains.

Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalia luteicornis) .  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalia luteicornis) . Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unknown flower fly.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown flower fly. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.) on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida).  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Green sweat bee on Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In my pond, a Northern Green Frog  awaits its next meal. Near the pond edge an Orchard Orbweaver spider is ready to pounce on prey caught in its web.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) spider . © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta) spider . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Cooper’s Hawk, unsuccessful at catching a songbird, watches for birds to return but eventually leaves without a meal.  A male Northern Cardinal, which is starting to molt, returns warily to the feeders.

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Wild Bergamot flowers attract a day-flying Hummingbird Clearwing Moth as well as many bumble bees.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) . © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) sips nectar from Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unknown bumble bee on  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).   © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown bumble bee on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

One night, I find mating Red Milkweed Beetles on a milkweed plant and a Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillar on a Virginia Creeper vine.  On another night, an adult Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth comes to my lights.

Red Milkweed Beetles mating.  (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) mating. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginis Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron). caterpillar. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron) caterpillar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth (Darapsa myron).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth (Darapsa myron). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Tent Caterpillar Moth, which I find attractive, also flies in.  Yes — this is the adult moth that comes from the Tent Caterpillars that make webs in my Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trees.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma americana).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma americana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Midsummer

In July, I find a variety of beetles.  My favorite, the Dogbane Beetle, is on a Dogbane plant.  A tiny (less than 1/4 inch) colorful beetle, the Mottled Tortoise Beetle  appears during the day (wearing its little translucent skirt!).  A longhorn Ivory-marked Beetle, comes to night lighting.

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) on Dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Ivory-marked Beetle (Eburia quadrigeminata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ivory-marked Beetle (Eburia quadrigeminata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The right side of the patio area sports both Cardinal Flower  and Great Blue Lobelia . Pickerel Rush grows in the pond on the left. The tall plants with yellow flowers in the background are Cup Plant. Cardinal Flower nectar is enjoyed by a Spicebush Swallowtail that lost part of its left hindwing.  Probably a hungry bird tried unsuccessfully to capture this butterfly.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) on right,  blue Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) flowers in pond on left.  Yellow flowers of Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in right background.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) on right, blue Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) flowers in pond on left. Yellow flowers of the tall Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in background. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) missing part of left hindwing on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Cup Plant attracts many pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and moths.  At night I find a Grape Leaffolder Moth sipping nectar.  One of many bumble bees that worked hard gathering nectar and pollen during the day sleeps on a Cup Plant flower.  At night, I often find bumble bees sound asleep on flowers in my garden.

Grape Leaffolder Moth (Desmia funeralis)  on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Grape Leaffolder Moth (Desmia funeralis) on Cup Plant at night. (Silphium perfoliatum). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee sleeping on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at night.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee sleeping on Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at night. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

After raising one successful brood, the House Wrens have a second set of nestlings that will soon leave the nest box.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nestlings in nest box>  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nestlings in nest box. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Bumble Bee on Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata).   © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble Bee on Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several types of native bees are busy pollinating my flowers.  Of special interest, bumble bees are performing buzz pollination on my Flowering Raspberry flowers.  Bumble bees vibrate their wings at specific frequencies to get some species of flowers to release their pollen.  Note that bumble bees are used for buzz pollination of a number of crops, including tomatoes, blueberries, eggplants, and cranberries.  The non-native honeybee is not able to buzz pollinate.

To watch and hear bumble bees performing buzz pollination in my yard, click here for the video.

 

I find a small green Nessus Sphinx moth caterpillar on native Enchanted Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) and decide to raise it in a small enclosure with several inches of loose soil.  I feed it fresh leaves and within a week or so, it grows to over two inches long, molts into a brown caterpillar, and later burrows into the soil to pupate.  I have to wait until next spring to see it emerge as a beautiful day-flying hummingbird-like moth.

Nessus Sphinx Moth caterpillar - early instar.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) caterpillar – early instar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis)  caterpillar - last instar before pupating.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) caterpillar – last instar before pupation. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

One night a strange-looking treehopper, possibly a Buffalo Treehopper, appears near my porch light.  Even more strange and ominous-looking, a very large robber fly the size of a large wasp hunts from a perch above my pond. These flies prey on large insects such as bees and wasps and will hang from one foot while devouring a victim.

Treehopper (possibly Buffalo Treehopper (Ceresa alta) .  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Possible Buffalo Treehopper (Ceresa alta) . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Robber Fly (likely Diogmites sp.).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Robber Fly (likely Diogmites sp.) hunts over the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Late Summer

A Shadow Darner dragonfly dries and expands its wings after emerging from the pond where it spent its nymphal stage.  The nymph recently crawled out of the pond and shed its exoskeleton. Because I find numerous shed skins (exuvia) during the summer, I know that my pond produces a good number of dragonflies.

Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) dragonfly.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Newly emerged Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) dragonfly dries and expands its wings. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The shed skin (exuvia) from which a dragonfly emerged still hangs from a stem in the pond. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

The shed skin (exuvia) from which a dragonfly emerged still hangs from a stem in the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Native bees continue to actively collect pollen.  This one deposits the white pollen of Upland Ironweed into large pollen baskets on its hind legs.

Unknown native bee on Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Unknown native bee on Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Skippers are frequent visitors at my Garden Phlox.  I am happy to find a Monarch, too, but regret that this is the only one I’ve seen in my yard all summer.  It’s a female, so hopefully she laid eggs on my milkweed.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Skipper drawing nectar from Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Skipper (probably Zabulon Skipper – Poanes zabulon) sipping nectar from Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Monarch Butterfly (female) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch butterfly (female) on Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two ants in the grass struggle to drag a grub to their nest.  The grub must weigh many times more than they do.

Ants dragging a grub to their nest.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ants dragging a grub to their nest. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

My Virgin’s Bower vine begins to bloom in late August and hosts a myriad of pollinators twenty-four hours a day.

Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) vine in bloom.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) vine in bloom.

At night, this vine is a moth magnet, attracting beauties like the multi-colored Ailanthus Webworm moth and Tobacco Budworm moth.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth  (Atteva punctella) at night on Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm (Atteva punctella) moth sips nectar at night from Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Tobacco Budworm (Heliothis virescens) moth at night on Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  Note very small caterpillar on flower in background.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Tobacco Budworm (Heliothis virescens) moth sips nectar at night from Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). Note very small u-shaped caterpillar on flower to the right of the moth’s antennae. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Predators such as harvestmen (“daddy longlegs”) and centipedes linger around the Virgin’s Bower vine to catch unsuspecting victims.  As I watch, a Spotted Orb Weaver spider quickly paralyzes the moth that flies into its web and then wraps it in silk.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider quickly paralyzes a moth that flew into its web.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider quickly paralyzes a moth that flies into its web. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider with moth wrapped in silk.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona crucifera) spider with moth wrapped in silk. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By mid-September, I see some fall migrating birds in the yard, including a Northern Parula and Common Yellowthroat.  Both find insects on my native plants that will fuel their journeys to the tropics.

Northern Parula (Setophaga Americana)  in River Birch (Betula nigra) tree.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

a migrating Northern Parula (Setophaga Americana) in River Birch (Betula nigra) tree. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) preens by the pond.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

A migrating Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) hunts insects by the pond. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Red-spotted Purple caterpillar has eaten the tip of a Black Cherry leaf in a pattern characteristic of this species.  I watch it grow for almost a week.  Then one night I make a gruesome discovery.  A spider has found my caterpillar and is in the process of sucking its life fluids.  However, I find another small Red-spotted Purple caterpillar a few feet away.  I’m hopeful this one will successfully overwinter and make it to adulthood.  If so, next summer it will grace my yard as another beautiful Red-spotted Purple butterfly.

An early instar Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) .  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

An early instar Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) . © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Spider sucking the life fluids of "my" Red-spotted Purple caterpillar.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Spider sucking the life fluids of “my” Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) caterpillar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis)  butterfly in Barb's yard.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitus arthemis) butterfly on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) in Barb’s yard. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

I look forward to next summer and discovering nature’s mysteries anew.

References

  • Beadle, David & Leckie, Seabrooke.  Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. New York, NY:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace Publishing Company, 2012
  • Bug Guide.Net:  http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740
  • Evans, Arthur V. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Evans, Arthur V. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
  • Moth Photographer’s Group: http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/
  • Switzer, Callin, “Getting Buzzed at the Arnold Arboretum”, Arnoldia; April, 2014.

National Moth Week: Why? What Good are Moths?

By Barb Elliot

Moths, really? Yes, we’ll celebrate moths this coming week, July 19 – 27. During National Moth Week public and private moth-watching events will occur. Mothing, the practice of attracting, viewing, and photographing moths is growing immensely in popularity. But some are puzzled and ask, “What good are moths?” Butterflies are great, but moths are nasty.  After all, moth caterpillars eat tomato plants, make holes in wool clothes, eat flour and cereal in our kitchens, and can be agricultural pests. This is all true, but harmful moths are but a small fraction of moth species. Most are actually very important and beneficial to the environment.

The Cecropia Moth has a 6 inch wingspan.  Creative Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

The Cecropia Moth.  Creative Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

In fact, moths are closely related to our much-loved butterflies. Both are in the scientific order Lepidoptera, meaning “scaly wings”. All butterflies and moths have four wings covered with colored scales. Both groups go through four life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis/cocoon), and adult (butterfly/moth). Adult butterflies and moths also have a proboscis – a thin, straw-like tube for sipping nectar. However, all butterflies fly during the day, but most moths fly at night.  The tips of butterfly antennae are club-like, while moth antennae are

Butterflies antennae tips are club-like.  Photo from National Moth Week presentation.

Butterflies antennae tips are club-like. Photo from National Moth Week. Click to enlarge.

Moth antennae come in three forms.  Photo from National Moth Week.

Moth antennae come in three forms. Photo from National Moth Week. Click to enlarge.

more varied in structure. . Some moths have hairy-looking elongated scales on their bodies. These may provide greater protection from the environment and help them maintain their temperature – useful on cool nights.

But what good are moths?  Widespread and numerous (nearly 13,000 species in the U.S. vs. just 1,000 butterfly species) they play key roles in ecosystems. As pollinators of night-blooming plants, they are very important.  Unlike bees, moths do not eat or gather pollen.  However, their hairy bodies collect and spread pollen as they move from plant to plant.

Dark-banded Owlet moth sipping nectar from Common Milkweed in Barb's yard.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Dark-banded Owlet moth sipping nectar from Common Milkweed in Barb’s yard. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Many plants depend on this nocturnal pollination to maximize seed production.  A few cannot reproduce at all without moth pollination.  The proboscis of some moths can be many inches long, enabling the moth to reach nectar at the end of elongated flower tubes that are too long for bees.

Moths, both adults and caterpillars, are key food sources for many animals. Other insects, spiders, birds, bats, frogs, toads, lizards, rodents, foxes, and even bears consume moths. As indicators of biodiversity and the health of our environment, they function as “canaries in the coalmine.” Almost all moth caterpillars require specific plants as food.  Less diversity in native plants means less food for moth caterpillars and therefore, fewer species and numbers of moths. The result — less food to power the web of life.

Luna Moth.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Many moths are beautiful, like the lovely Luna Moth.  Less impressive moths are often  masters of mimicry or camouflage.  Some mimic scary-looking animals such as snakes. Others, such as the Io Moth, have huge “eyes” to startle predators.  Some look like bark, dead leaves, lichens, or even bird droppings– making it almost impossible to spot them.

IO Moth revealing its"eyes" for startling predators.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

IO Moth revealing its”eyes” for startling predators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

Copper Underwing Moth camouflaged on tree bark.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Copper Underwing Moth camouflaged on tree bark. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I find moths to be downright interesting creatures.  For instance, the beautiful and large adults of the Giant Silk Moth family have captivating life histories. These moths, such as the Luna, Tulip-tree, Cecropia, or Polyphemus, live for only a week or two — just long enough to attract or search out mates and for females to lay eggs.  With reduced mouthparts, these moths are unable to eat.  Females emit chemical scents called pheromones to attract males.  Males in this family have large, feathery antennae to detect pheromones from as far as seven miles away. They want to make a beeline to the female!

Moths come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Some are as tiny as the tip of a pencil.  The Cecropia Moth (shown above), our largest moth, has a 6” wingspan.  Some rest with their wings flat. Many hold them vertically like some butterflies. Others fold them like tents over their bodies.

Yellow-collared Slug Moth with its abdomen curled up.   © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Yellow-collared Slug Moth with its abdomen curled up. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A few curl their abdomens up above their wings, an odd posture that is likely part of their mimicry or camouflage.  Sphinx or Hawk moths display outstanding flight dynamics. They can fly very quickly, hover, and move rapidly from side-to-side.  In fact, the flight aerodynamics of some Micro-aerial Vehicles’ (MAVs) are being designed by the military to emulate Sphinx moth flight.

Both Edie, my Backyards for Nature colleague, and I now consider ourselves to be “moth-ers”.  We frequently have “moth nights” in our yards. We attract the moths by shining special lights onto a white sheet, a place where they can land. By painting fermented bait onto tree trunk, we can attract moths that don’t come to lights. We follow Moths of the Eastern United States on Facebook and note what moths are being seen by other enthusiasts.  In June, Edie and I attended Mothapalooza, a weekend moth conference in Ohio.  With 150 participants, it sold out within two weeks of being announced – a testament to the burgeoning popularity of mothing. We visited five mothing stations that hosted thousands of moths.  We were up until the wee hours, but had great fun.

Try mothing yourself.  At first keep it simple. Leave your porch light on for the evening. Go out periodically to see what moths have flown in.  With a flashlight, look for moths nectaring on your flowers.  Fragrant, white, and pink flowers are particularly alluring.  Look closely,

Ultronia Underwing sipping juices from rotting fruit. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ultronia Underwing sipping juices from rotting fruit. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

and you’ll see each moth using its proboscis to suck up nectar.  Or, put out a plate of rotting fruit and check for moths that stop by for a sugary drink.

Invite family and friends for a moth night in your yard.  See Edie’s Moth Night  blog post from last year for moth night ideas, a bait recipe, and host plants for moth caterpillars.  Check the National Moth Week website for public events in your area and tips on finding moths.  All across the United States and in many countries of the world, moth-ers will be celebrating moths.

Moths are good!  They play key roles in the web of life.  Plus, they are fascinating creatures.  These gems are outside your door at night.  Try mothing, but I warn you that it can become addictive.  Like a treasure hunt, you never know what may fly in.  Become a moth-er and … welcome to the dark side!

Resources

Beadle, David & Leckie, Seabrooke.  Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Himmelman, John.  Discovering Moths:  Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard.  Down East Books, 2002.

 

 

 

Moth Night

By Edie Parnum

Moths are underappreciated.  Most people think they’re dull and uninteresting.  They ignore those nameless little moths that fly up while walking through the grass.  Those moth pests in the kitchen cupboards are considered just that—pests. True, most of us

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)- a day-flying moth.  © Barb Elliot Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)- a day-flying moth. © Barb Elliot Click to enlarge.

can be captivated by a large, daytime moth like a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth sipping nectar from flowers.  However, because moths are usually nighttime creatures, most folks have little appreciation of their variety, esthetic appeal, and role in the web of life.  As for myself, I confess to moth love.

Moth Night is now an annual event in my backyard. A few weeks ago, I invited nature-loving family members and friends for nighttime “mothing”.  A few hours before sunset, I prepared for the occasion.  Since a great many nocturnal moths are attracted to light, I hung two white cotton sheets and positioned lights in front of them.  One light is a grow light and the other is a black light.  Both of these attract moths because they project a wider range of UV light than standard incandescent or florescent light bulbs. Some moths do not come to lights.  Instead, I lured them to a fermented concoction (see recipe below) I painted on tree trunks.

Once it was quite dark, we ventured out into the darkness. Using our flashlights or headlamps, we observed the moths attracted to the lighted sheets and tree trunks.  By shining our lights back and forth in the garden, we found more moths hidden in the vegetation, especially on flowers. Sometimes their eyes reflected back to us.  Big and small, ornate and plain, colorful and monochromatic—they were there.

Sad Underwing.  A 2"-long moth.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Sad Underwing. A 2″-long moth. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

We often heard someone say, “Look at this one!”  That’s what my friend Mike said when he found the Sad Underwing (Catocala maestosa).  We were happy to see this intricately patterned two-inch species.  I presume it’s called “sad” because the underwing

The Sweetheart - a 2" long moth.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

The Sweetheart – a 2″ long moth. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

(hindwing) is plain.  Another time Barb, my friend and colleague, discovered The Sweetheart (Catocala amatrix), an Underwing that charmed us with its rosy-pink hindwing pattern. The uncommon Hop’s Anglewing (Nyphonix segregata) was a good find that night.

Hops Angleshade.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Hops Angleshade. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

We “moth-ers” exclaim “ooh” and “ah” frequently because moths are varied and beautiful creatures.   They display a variety of colors including pink, purple, orange, green, and yellow.  Some shimmer in the light or have iridescent spots. Those that are orange and black are toxic or pretending to be. True, many of them are just shades of tan and grey, but often the patterns are well-defined and elaborate. Others are camouflaged to look like dead leaves or bird droppings.

Becky, a moth-er, looking at a Yellow-Banded Underwing (Catacola cerogama).  @ Debbie Beer.  Click to enlarge.
Becky, a moth-er, looking at a Yellow-Banded Underwing (Catacola cerogama). @ Debbie Beer. Click to enlarge.

The shapes can be interesting, too. We see wings that are deeply scalloped, creased, or curled.  The Plume Moths with their skinny wings look like miniature airplanes. Moth antennae sometimes resemble feathers.  Bizarre hairy tufts can show up almost anywhere on their bodies: the legs, thorax, or abdomen.

By looking for the eye-shine of other creatures, we discovered bees, caterpillars, praying mantises, spiders, and cicadas.  My nine-year-old grandson found and identified a Leopard Slug (a creature from the netherworld?) eating the bait on a tree trunk.  We listened for night sounds, too, and heard the whinny of a screech owl and squeaks of flying squirrels.

Leopard Slug.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Leopard Slug. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Many of us took photos and then later admired the details on our computer screens.  That’s when I try my hand at moth ID.  It’s difficult.  After all, 11, 000 species of moths in North America have been identified.  Moths outnumber butterfly species 11 to one.

After I’ve identified a moth, I note its host plants.  These are the plants where the moth lived its earlier stages as an egg and caterpillar and where the female adult moth will lay eggs for the next generation.  Many of these host plants grow on my property (see below). Although I live in a congested suburban area, my ¾-acre property has a good variety of the native perennials, grasses, and woody plants that moths use. And, I don’t use pesticides. It is moth-friendly habitat.

Why should we care about moths?  Moths are important links in the web of life.  The adult moths are good pollinators and are food for birds and bats.  Birds, especially nestling birds, also feed on moths in their egg, larvae, or caterpillar stages.   Small mammals, reptiles, and other insect predators consume moths in their various stages as well. In fact, insects power our ecosystem and are the most important animals of all.

Moths have lured me into the nighttime natural world of my backyard.  Now I feel more intimately connected to the lives of moths and other creatures that contribute to my property’s biodiversity.  I won’t wait until next year to hold another Moth Night.  I’ve caught the moth bug.

Harris's Three-Spot (Harrisimimna trisignata).  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Harris’s Three-Spot (Harrisimimna trisignata). © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

——- For additional photographs of moths, see Moth Photo Gallery below  —–

Edie’s Bait Recipe

  • One or two overripe bananas, mashed
  • Dollop of molasses
  • Small scoop of brown sugar
  • Glug or two of beer (stale is ok)
  1. No need to be precise.  Mix together and adjust proportions to create a pancake batter consistency.
  2. Leave it for a day or two in a warm place.  I like to take it outside for a few hours to let bees and flies add their contributions.
  3. With a paint brush, smear this concoction at eye level on tree trunks about an hour or two before sunset.

Resources

  • Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
  • BugGuide.  www.bugguide.net  Images of moths and other insects  Can submit ID request
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America.  www.butterfliesandmoths.org  Images of butterflies and moths.  Can submit ID request
  • Moths of Eastern United States. http://www.facebook.com/groups/MothsoftheeasternUS  Facebook group for members to post images and discuss sightings

Significant Native Plants to Host Moth Caterpillars

Basswood Maples
Beech Oaks
Birches Pines
Blueberries Walnut
Elm Wild Cherry
Grasses Willows
Hickories Viburnums

Moth Photo Gallery

 

False Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype urticarial). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

False Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype urticarial). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunate Zale (Zale lunata). - wingspan 2 1/4".  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
Lunate Zale (Zale lunata). – wingspan 2 1/4″. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Large lace Borer (Scapula limoundata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
Large Lace Borer (Scapula limoundata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Looper (Autographa precationis).  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Looper (Autographa precationis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Raspberry Pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Raspberry Pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.