July 20-28 is National Moth Week, a global celebration of moths and biodiversity.
Nope, it’s not a typo. We’re talking “mothing” here: the act of attracting and discovering these amazing insects.
And guess what? Kids love this. They really do. They love the hunt, the thrill of a mission, the adventure of discovery and science. And of course, they love bugs!
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.
Because moths are cool! And mothing is a fun way to attract them and learn about this vast, diverse and secretive realm of insects.
Did you know that, 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 110,000 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 luna moth, with its light green color and delicate teardrop wing. Beautiful.
Don’t Just Sit There, Do Mothing
Here are a few ways to attract moths with kids, and all of them are pretty easy.
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 with 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 stealthy, 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: www.connecticutmoths.com.
Another great book is Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.
So, gather up the kids and see what’s out there. There’s mothing to do!
Eric Aldrich is a Nature Conservancy writer and moth fan from New Hampshire.