A Passion for Moths--My 2010 Moth Big Year

Clymene Moth, Haploa clymene ©Merrill Lynch

Snowflakes are falling as I type. Winter has arrived in the High Country and, I'm afraid, the end of the moth season for 2010. So now is the time to summarize my season long quest to see as many species of moths as possible at a single location. I hope the following account of my mothing big year will be interesting and inspiring to those of you out there who share a passion for the nocturnal leps. (Image to right: Painted Lichen Moth, Hypoprepia fucosa ©Merrill Lynch)

I have been interested in moths for the past ten years or so (noting new species in my tattered copy of Covell) but only started keeping detailed records in 2009, shortly after moving to Watauga County. In 2010 it became an obsession when sometime in June I added up the species I had recorded for the year and was stunned that I had close to 300 species and summer had barely begun! I then set my first goal, 500 species, which seemed at the time both realistic and reasonably ambitious. When I hit 500 species in early August, I decided to just keep at it full bore and vowed to keep the lights on and check the sheets until the last moth flew (or I was evicted from the premises by my long suffering partner!). I was also inspired by the efforts of the Tennessee moth'ers who had gotten together in the spring and decided to undertake an ambitious effort to document all of the moths in their state in 2010. (Image above right: Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva punctella ©Merrill Lynch)

Before I get into the details of the big year, let me just say that I find moths infinitely interesting. For one thing, they are beautiful insects that have an incredible diversity of shapes, patterns, and palettes--even the ones that at first glance appear brown and dull reveal intricate patterns and subtly beautiful colors at closer inspection. Sorry, diurnal lepsters, but butterflies don't have anything on moths! And another thing about moths. They are ubiquitous and abundant and exist in almost endless diversity filling every conceivable ecological niche. And they literally come to you--you don't have to go and chase them! Digital photography has really opened up the moth world to closer examination and has become an essential identification tool. (Image above right: Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda ©Merrill Lynch)

In 2010, I recorded 632 species of moths in my backyard, starting with a Grote's Pinion (Lithophane grotei) on March 8 and ending with Acrolepiopsis heppneri (a micromoth in the family Acrolepiidae) on November 3. (Image below right: Io Moth, Automeris io ©Merrill Lynch)

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

A Passion for Moths--Equipment

Dark-banded Geometer, Ecliptopera atricolorata ©Merrill Lynch

Equipment: My equipment consisted of 2 sheets lighted by one 160 MV lamp located in the front yard near a small stream; one towel mounted on the sheltered wall of the house under the porch roof, lighted by a single 15W fluorescent black light; and a porch light lighted by a 15W compact fluorescent white light. I also experimented with a sugar bait concoction that I painted on a tree in the front yard. I did this periodically throughout the season and was rewarded with at least a dozen species that never came in to my lights. (image above right is of the Ironweed Borer, Papaipema cerussata ©Merrill Lynch)

My general routine was to turn the lights on around sunset and check the sheets for 1-4 hours each night, first in the early evening between dusk and midnight and again in the early morning between 3-7am (pre-dawn), leaving the lights on all night. I tried to take multiple photographs of each moth that I did not recognize and also photos of fresh specimens of all species.for photodocumentation. (Image to the right: Skiff Moth, Prolimacodes badia ©Merrill Lynch)

All of my photographs were taken with a Panasonic GH-1 using a 45mm (90mm slr equivalent) macro lens. The images were downloaded daily into my computer where I would begin the arduous task of sorting and identifying the photos to species. The identification process sometimes took days and even weeks. I relied primarily on the images on Moth Photographers Group and Bugguide websites and also consulted moth guidebooks such as Covell's Moths of Eastern North America. Occasionally, I would send photos off for identification help, sometimes to Bugguide but also to moth experts. I took over 9,000 images during the season and have photodocumentation for about 80% of the 632 species identified. (Image above left: the Hebrew, Polygrammate hebraeicum ©Merrill Lynch)

I entered the data on an excel spreadsheet that I stumbled upon on the Internet which contained a database of over 1,600 species of moths recorded in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over 90% of the moths I've recorded in Watauga County are in this database.

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

A Passion for Moths--Location

False Crocus Geometer, Xanthotype urticaria ©Merrill Lynch

Location: All moths were recorded in my yard or in a few instances at mobile light stations set up on my property within a 1/4 mile of my house. My farm is located in northern Watauga County, NC about 15 miles north of Boone and less than one mile from the Tennessee border. It is located in the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River and is about 3,400 feet elevation. Snake Mountain (elevation--5,580 feet) is the dominant local topographic feature; the summit is about 3 miles due south. Habitat is early to mid-successional mesic northern hardwoods (containing patches of older growth forest) with a narrow open riparian zone and nearby pastures. The area around my property is very rural and dominated by a mosaic of open pasture and hardwood forest with abundant small streams and springs/seepages. The only evergreens are scattered Fraser fir christmas tree plantations and planted white pine stands.

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

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

Mayfly on the porch

One of the best ways to see some new insects is to leave the back porch light on a bit during these dog days of Summer. Here is a visitor to our porch last night in Baywood/Grayson County, VA. I believe that this is an adult mayfly, possibly a burrowing mayfly of the genus Hexagenia.
If anyone knows better please inform me. This group lives for long periods as a larva in the sediments of streams and lakes and thus the immature form is rarely seen. In contrast the adults do not feed and die after about one day, hopefully after reproducing- thus the name of the order Ephemeroptera (ephemeral life). A pretty strange life reminiscent of periodical cicadas.


Is it a yellow jacket wasp or not?

Whenever an insect lands on you, it is time to pay attention and figure out if there is going to be a problem! Is there going to be a bite or sting or just a tickle with no further consequences?

I recently noticed a scary-looking small bug on my leg while biking and decided to check this out since it strongly resembled one of our most feared wasps, the yellow jacket. Now yellow jackets are not to be trifled with as I have learned several times when I have had to deal with their formidable nests. They are fierce and have a strong sting and an attitude to boot. On closer inspection I realized that although this bug (see photo of syrphid fly) is a close mimic of the yellow jacket wasp, it is in fact a fly. How did I figure that out? I look at the wings and can see that there is only one pair of wings (wasps have two which fold back). The eyes in flies are larger and placed differently and the antennae are shorter. If you can see the mouth, flies have sucking or piercing mouth-parts whereas wasps have chewing mouth-parts. Flies also behave somewhat differently - for example this bug was drinking sweat from my leg- in an apparent attempt to pick up some salt/sodium which is lacking in their mostly herbivorous diet. With some practice you will be able to make this distinction too, so do not just dismiss the swarm of bugs flying around you in Summer-time, have a look at them carefully and pick out the pretenders from the real bad dudes.

Now just when you have the flies separated from the wasps, along comes another yellow and black critter (see photo of locust beetle) which is not uncommon in our yard since we have a lot of black locust trees. This is an entirely different type of insect (a beetle instead of a fly or wasp), yet it is colored rather similarly and seems to be also mimicking a yellow jacket to obtain protection from predators. Birds likely recognize and avoid yellow jackets and their mimics which fosters the evolution of such convergence in color and pattern. This does not work on mammals such as skunks which make a good living by digging out and eating the young found in the nests of yellow jackets. Indeed skunks, which themselves are well protected by scent and advertised by a striking color, are highly thought of in our neighborhood by farmers who value them for their ability to destroy yellow jacket nests which can cause a lot of pain during haying time.

So learning the basics of insect identification can pay dividends not only in terms of protecting your own hide, but will add to your understanding and enjoyment of the natural world.
Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Those bodacious beetles

In my wanderings among the woods and fields I often encounter beetles, which are not usually considered among the most colorful of the insects, as are the butterflies. However there are some striking exceptions to this rule, one of which I call the "jewel of the forest," the six-spotted tiger beetle. This little gem is an iridescent green of the most amazing hue (see photo) which is accentuated by its habitat in sunny gaps in the forest. These little monsters are truly tigers at their scale and run amok among the tiny insect denizens of the forest floor. Although I will be quick to point out the adaptive advantages of many color patterns, I am at a loss to provide any definitive answer for this distinctive green flash. Obviously it makes the beetle more visible to predators with color vision (birds), but the speed and alertness of this tiny tiger may negate this factor. Indeed it might even confuse a predator since the green wing covers are lifted during flight. The color is not a sexual attractor since both sexes are green. So we are left with another of nature's many mysteries.
Another impressively colored beetle is the dogbane beetle (see photo) which has an amazingly iridescent "coat of many colors." Such rainbow-like patterns are normally produced by a series of tiny grooves that diffract light, not by pigments. This beetle feeds on dogbane which is a close relative of milkweed and has a similarly milky and toxic sap. So it is likely that this beetle is advertising a toxicity derived from its food. Such an advertisement is common among a group of insects that feed on milkweed, including the red milkweed or four-eyed beetle (shown here mating- and note the double eye- hence the scientific name Tetraopes tetrophthalmus). Isn't it interesting how birds recognize that red-orange advertises toxicity in insects, but that red fruits are ripe and yummy?
So while you are out and about in nature watch for those very numerous beetles (the most species diverse of any kinds of animals) and contemplate the purposes, not to mention the beauty, of the many different colors and patterns that they possess.
-Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Those confusing black and blue butterflies!

Well it is Spring again, that most wonderful time of year when life renews itself, and we have to figure out the names of all those confusing Spring flowers and butterflies that we have not generally seen for many months. I just encountered my first spicebush swallowtail butterfly and since it was a male, it was relatively easy to recognize (see photo). However there are a surprising number of large black and blue butterflies, many in different families and thus not closely related, that resemble one another to an amazing degree. Just for example consider the photos of four species that I have included here: the spicebush and pipevine swallowtails, the female Diana fritillary, and the red-spotted purple (a brushfoot). Considering that the males and females of some species are much more different in appearance than these butterflies from totally different families, what is going on here?

This is believed to be the result of convergence in coloration among butterflies that are poisonous to eat (especially the pipevine swallowtail that feeds on toxic Dutchman's pipe as a caterpillar and thus serves as a model) and tasty or partially tasty mimics that find it advantageous to gain protection from a resemblance to the pipevine swallowtail. Yet why would males and females within one species be so different? For example male eastern tiger swallowtails are yellow and black as are many females, yet some females are dark, especially in the South. Male and female Diana fritillaries are always different and the male is more cryptic.

This similarity in coloration among dissimilar species should remind you of the mimicry group among orange and black butterflies (all poisonous to some degree) that feed on milkweed (monarch, queen, soldier), willow (viceroy) and passionvine (gulf fritillary).
So the predators, mainly birds, are clearly scrutinizing their prey in great detail trying to figure out which ones are good to eat and which are poisonous. The prey are doing their best to confuse the birds. The military "arms race" and strategic deterrence were obviously not invented by the Russians and Americans. Once again we are amazed by the diversity and complexity of life!
-Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Migrating with the darners!

We are "migrating" north to our VA farm tomorrow from SW FL and the most interesting natural event this morning locally was a virtual swarm of large greenish darners flying around at Cedar Pt park. The only one I could find on the ground is shown in an attached photo- I am guessing it is a juvenile green darner. Those odonatologists out there please let me know if I am wrong. I assume these are migrating from S FL or even the Caribbean, or possibly including d'flies which have just emerged from local ponds? There are quite a few large darner nymphs in local wetlands.
The question is do these dragonflies actually migrate to VA/NC- I am assuming this but wonder if they can over-winter as nymphs in VA? I know that the adult green darners abruptly leave our VA ponds in late Summer (and thus appear to be migrating) and are replaced by equally large shadow darners well into the Fall- I assume they are also migrating south but may be more tolerant of cold than the green darner.
So let us not forget that even "lowly" insects can do amazing things like migrate over long distances.
Cheers- Bill

The problem with plumbago- how to think like a butterfly

In our desire to provide sources of nectar for insects, we often are tempted to plant exotic plants which can provide beautiful flowers for the garden and hopefully nourish some of our "flying flowers", the wonderful butterflies. It is not always obvious how to balance native and exotic plants in the garden since certainly one would prefer to use native plants whenever possible. However natives may not always flourish in a given place, and they may not provide abundant flowers at all times of the year. Of course many of us inherited plants in our gardens when we purchased a house and find it difficult to remove flourishing but perhaps non-productive flowering exotics. One problem I face in our yard is that of plumbago, the shrub from S. Africa that is widely planted in Florida, Texas and California. It has pretty blue flowers, blooms profusely and is non-invasive. So is it a "good exotic" to have in the garden? The answer is NO ! But the reason may surprise you- not just because it is an exotic but because its the nectar in its flowers is not available to most insects in N. America. Look at the attached photo I took in our yard of a honeybee hopefully checking out the plumbago for a quick lunch- but to no avail. The problem is that the corolla tube, where the petals are fused into a long tubular structure holding nectar at the bottom, is very long relative to the length of the tongue or proboscis of the bee, or almost any other local insects. Thus they can look but not drink! So this flower is essentially useless as a provider of nectar for butterflies. In its native S. Africa it is known to attract butterflies and to act as a larval food plant. Some birds have figured out a solution to this problem by piercing the base of the flowers and "stealing" nectar.
Another common example of this problem with long corolla tubes is Ixora, the beautiful red tubular flower from India. Once you recognize this situation you can now examine your garden for unproductive flowers, at least from the perspective of hungry nectivores. This will require a fundamental change in your perspective about your garden- to carefully re-examine all of your plants on the basis of their usefulness to butterflies. So get out there and watch each of your flowers and see if the butterflies are actually able to feed from them.
Bill Dunson


Here is a draft of a poem I started a good while back...I have merged a few moments together as if they happened dreamlike in a short while...I have spent a few days at the hawk watch at milepost zero, aka Rockfish Gap, Afton Mountain. I have seen several thousand raptors there in a day, and have seen migrating butterflies and dragonflies at this site as well. This draft scarcely edges on that topic, even though I do mention Veracruz, where four million hawks (and counting) have been tallied this fall season....would love to spend a day counting a gazillion hawks, kites, accipiters, vultures, falcons, harriers, ospreys, yes!

Scott Jackson-Ricketts suggests I call the poem Waynesboro Exit, so that is what I will call this incarnation for now. I plan to post a couple more poems in a few days.


The interstate freezes on Afton Mountain.
A few vultures perch on some broken pines.
I can see thin ice crusted on their feathers.
Traffic is sliding past the Waynesboro exit.

I'm parked in my rusty blue truck watching
clouds steal against the steep embankment
of Rockfish. Migration has fizzled into stones.
Not one hawk glides anywhere, a white pigeon
flaps from a bridge, and claps its feral wings
above the morning's grunting load of timber
scabbing around a curve.

I blame the bright noon hour of my windshield.
I think the sun has cracked open all the clouds
and I'm November talking to myself, talking
an empty sky into seven crows and a stray duck
shouldered from nowhere. I might just haul dirt
to my dead garden, might guzzle some cold rum
and laugh at you counting thirty thousand hawks
soaring today past Veracruz.

Copyright 2009, Clyde Kessler

October 3 event, Celebrating the New River Plateau

Music on the Lawn at the Davis Bourne Inn: Celebrate the New River Plateau with Blue Ridge Discovery Center.

The Grayson area pilot chapter of BRDC got rolling on October 3, 2009 with an event in Independence, Virginia. We could not have asked for a better day for an event! ...Sunny and warm, a light breeze, music, wildflowers, trees, hikes, fish, insects, and food all in the outdoors under a beautiful canopy of walnut trees...and nobody got hit in the head with a walnut! The activities and conversations continued throughout the day and word of BRDC’s activity will undoubtedly spread.
We’d like to give a special thanks to the many volunteers that helped with this effort and thanks to you newcomers for participating in this celebration! We look forward to seeing how the Grayson Area Chapter of BRDC blossoms over the coming years!

Special thanks to our event partners:

Blue Ridge Birders, Grayson Landcare, Ellie Kirby and her band, Mountain Flower Lampshades, and the Davis-Bourne Inn

Sketch by Cindy Brown © 2009