A Passion for Moths--Summary

(Polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus ©Merrill Lynch)

Summary: I kept track of the nights that I actually checked the sheets and photographed moths, by month. The tally (monthly species total followed by mothing nights) is as follows:
(image to the right, The Herald, Scoliopteryx libatrix ©Merrill Lynch)

March: 9 spp; 7 nights;
April: 55 spp; 20 nights;
May: 146 spp; 20 nights;
June: approx. 200 spp; 15 nights;
July: 272 spp; 30 nights;
August: 214 spp; 28 nights;
September: 187 spp; 24 nights;
October: 87 spp; 22 nights;
November: 7 spp. 2 nights.
Grand Total: 632 spp; 168 observation nights.

The first moth of the season was Grote's Pinion (Lithophane grotei) seen at my sugar maple sap buckets on March 8 (with a foot of snow still on the ground!). Moths were few and far between until the first really mild nights of mid-late April when species diversity and numbers increased substantially. My first exciting find was an Immigrant Pinion (Lithophane oriunda) seen at my sugar bait station in early April. Recognizing its rarity, I sent off pics to various experts who corroborated the identification and confirmed the first record for this species in North Carolina! May and June brought an endless number of new species including many micros and many geometers. They also brought the first big boys, the larger sphinx and saturn moths. July was the peak month of moth diversity with 272 species recorded. August brought the first of the fall flying moths such as the borers (genus Papaipema) and September/October heralded the arrival of various noctuids collectively known as darts, pinions, and sallows. One of my favorite moths, the Large Tolype, made multiple appearances during these months. The final moth of the season was Acrolepiopsis heppneri, an interesting micromoth in the obscure family Acrolepiidae, noted on November 3.

Of the 632 species, 209 species were the so-called micros- families such as the torts (Tortricidae), grass-veneer moths (Crambidae), pyralids (Pyralidae), and plume moths (Pterophoridae)--122 species of geometers (Geometridae), 13 sphinx moths (Sphingidae), 24 prominents (Notodontidae), 19 tiger moths (Arctiidae), and 221 species of owlet moths (Noctuidae). One of my favorite groups, the Underwings (genus Catocala), were represented by 16 species. (image above left: Locust Underwing, Euparthenos nubilis ©Merrill Lynch)

I should mention that I missed a number of day-flying moths that are not attracted to lights such as the wasp mimics in the family Sesiidae, some of the day-flying sphinxes such as bumblebee clearwing, and many others. I also do not claim that my list is 100% accurate--in fact, I'm sure there are some mis-id's. I tried to be conservative and only record those species I was reasonably sure about and in some cases I left the identification at the genus level. But moth identification can be very challenging and there are many pitfalls one must traverse in the process: bad lighting or angle in the photograph can obscure important details; many species can only be identified by genitalic dissection and are visually inseparable; many species are not represented by photos (or the photos are low quality) on the various websites; some species are highly variable and come in many different color forms; many moths that are worn and have lost many of their scales simply cannot be identified; etc. I'm guessing that of the total number of moth images that I took over the season, unidentified images amounted to about 5-10 % of the total. (image above right: Giant Leopard Moth, Hypercompe scribonia ©Merrill Lynch)

To put my record in perspective, there are probably at least 2,400 species of moths in North Carolina; however, no one knows for sure because there is no official published list (although I hear rumors that Steve Hall at the NC Natural Heritage Program is working on this). This compares to 174 species of butterflies known in the state. Parker Backstrom, an avid moth'er in Chatham County, has recorded, I believe, around 700 species in and around his property over several years. Bob Patterson in Maryland probably holds the record for the most moths recorded at a single site--1000+ species-- but his record is cumulative over many years. I am not aware of anyone who has attempted a big year for moths but I'd be interested in hearing about it if anyone knows.

I should also say that I don't think my location is particularly exceptional in terms of moth diversity. I am fortunate to live in the country and have an abundance of natural habitats around me but I think my number could easily be duplicated (or exceeded) by anybody dedicated and crazy enough to devote the necessary time and energy required. Dave Beadle, the author of the upcoming field guide to moths, tells me that he has recorded over 500 species in his tiny backyard in downtown Toronto, Canada that is less than 100 square feet!

I want to thank Bo Sullivan, Parker Backstrom, Dave Beadle and Steve Hall for their inspiration, camaraderie, and identification assistance. Special thanks go to my partner, Gabby Call, for her infinite patience, understanding and encouragement. Thanks also are due all of the folks on the North Carolina and Tennessee moth list serves who provided much inspiration and encouragement.

Looking back on the year, it has been a thrill to observe and learn about such an amazing diversity of creatures, literally at my doorstep. Beauty and the diversity of life exemplified by tiny creatures that are right in front of us but we know so little about. I've developed a greater appreciation for the small things and hope that others will too. Moths are just cool, period. I hope that all of you out there who are already bitten will share your passion with others. And for those of you who have not paid much attention to moths, I hope you will give them a second look. I'm eagerly anticipating the arrival of Dave Beadle's moth guide due in 2012-- think back ten years ago when butterflying took off after publication of Glassberg's guide. And there is so much potential for folks to make contributions to science by simply observing and keeping records of these creatures; even basic life history information (flight season, food plants, etc) for many species is not known. And you never know, you may have a new species unknown to science waiting to be discovered right in your backyard. I can't imagine anything more exciting than that possibility. And finally, the most important thing to remember is that moths (and most other insects) exist in such profusion because of their long and intricate co-evolution with the plant kingdom--the conservation of biodiversity is the most important task and responsibility that we humans face.

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©J. Merrill Lynch
Echo Valley Farm
Watauga County, NC
Elevation: 3,400 feet