Mothing, for the inner scientist

Last modified: 9/5/2013 7:53:06 AM
The cusp of summer has a way of channeling my inner scientist, the one I’ve unsuccessfully suppressed since fifth grade. It’s the scientist who collects bones, rocks, feathers, scat, owl pellets or anything smelly, weird and from the woods and streams.

As June segues into July, my inner scientist keeps the porch light on all night to perform a highly unsophisticated biological survey: Count the moths.

Whether you call it research or curiosity, it’s a great activity for the scientist inside a kid of any age.

We call it “mothing,” and this is a great time to do it.

Mothing is a weird mix of science, bugs and outdoor fun. Take it as serious as you want, following protocol carefully or just wingin’ it and having fun. No matter, you and your kids will learn a thing or two and connect with nature.

I got hooked on mothing a few years ago when I helped Nature Conservancy Ecologist Jeff Lougee in New Hampshire. For an ecological study, Jeff and I gathered moths late at night in the Ossipee Pine Barrens. Now I do mothing at home with the kids.

Why moths?

Because moths are cool! And there are fun ways to attract moths and learn about this vast, diverse and secretive realm of insects.

While there are about 1,000 species of butterflies in North America, the continent has more than 11,000 moth species. Worldwide, science has described more than 150,000 moth species so far, and the list is growing, compared to 28,000 butterfly species.

On a good night of mothing, you could attract dozens of different moth species. Count ’em. And check ’em out. You might get the virgin tiger moth, with its checker-like top wing and pumpkin-orange underwing. You might get a giant leopard moth, pale white with curious black circles. You might get a wood nymph, with its amazing defense mechanism of imitating bird poop. What predator wants to eat bird poop?!

You might get those big, beautiful celebrities of the moth world, like promethea, with its striking tawny color and bold “eye” patch on each wing, a defense mechanism. You might get the iconic luna moth, with its light green color and delicate teardrop wing. Beautiful.

Don’t just sit there, go mothing

Here are a few ways to attract moths, and all of them are pretty simple:

Porch light method: This is the easiest. Just leave the porch light on for a while and see what comes along. Among the theories about why moths are attracted to light is the notion that moths are actually trapped by light, like sensory overload.

Black light method: You can switch the regular bulb in your porch light to a black light bulb. Instead of illuminating posters in the basement, you’re attracting cool moths to your porch. Another option is to rig up a small incandescent black light unit on your porch, or, with an extension cord, out in the yard a bit. It helps a lot to aim the black light at a white sheet, even if it’s on a clothesline. The sheet gives the moths a place to rest and be observed.

Bait and wait: A fun way to attract moths is with bait. With your kids, mix up a paste-like bait. You can use bananas, stale beer and brown sugar. Ideally, you want to let this mix ferment for a few days. If you don’t have time for this, don’t sweat it, and don’t sweat the recipe. You can add maple syrup, honey, liqueur, watermelon, vanilla, etc. Experiment!

Using a paint brush, paint a patch of bait on a line of trees, chest high, along a path or an edge of a field or lawn. Then wait. Go out a few hours after nightfall and check your bait stations, preferably with a flashlight softened with red cellophane, so as not to scare the moths. Be stealth, because moths can hear. Gathered at these bait stations, you’ll see all sorts of moths, some of which won’t be drawn to lights, but love the bait.

Identify those nighttime jewels

The fun part is identifying those moths that you’ve attracted. A great resource is the book “Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard” by John Himmelman. He also has a great website:

If you’re a serious “mother,” check out “Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.”

Finally, a great resource comes from National Moth Week (July 20 to 28): The week is a great way to build interest in mothing, with events all over the world, including here in New Hampshire.

So, gather up the kids and see what’s out there. There’s mothing to do!

Eric Aldrich writes and goes mothing from his home in Hancock.


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