Summer isn’t just butterfly season and tomato season; it’s also high moth season. And while you may think that a moth garden doesn’t sound quite as enchanting as a butterfly garden, I beg to differ. Thanks to guidance from some patient experts, these days you can call me the moth gardener.
Of course, as a longtime bird person, I also delight at seeing a diversity of butterflies. But moths are the mother lode by another order of magnitude — and how did it take me decades of being engaged with the outdoors before I knew that?
In all of North America, there are about 700 species of birds and maybe 750 of butterflies. Moths number more than 11,000 species, with scientists regularly identifying more, particularly tiny micromoths.
Since my moth awakening, I have counted more than 175 kinds in my own garden, mostly after dark. Many are night flyers, which is why I was once oblivious to them.
Drawing you out into the dark is one of several ways that moths enrich life, if you embrace them. (Clothes moths or grain moths in the pantry — many people’s only experience of moths — are excepted from that embrace.)
The night garden is a whole different world, filled with organisms that use the cover of darkness as a tool to avoid predation. I think of these new companions — not just the obvious fireflies, but scarab beetles and caddisflies, giant millipedes and tiny, primitive bristletails and many others — as my garden’s night shift. Each is going about its business, in hopes of surviving to start a family.
Get to know an adult Pandorus sphinx moth, with its 4-inch wingspan in green and pink, or a tolype, with its multiple mohawk hairdos, and you will never again feel the same about a munching caterpillar — the moth’s earlier, larval stage.
Caterpillars such as the hickory tussock, a small black-and-white one covered in hairs called setae, looked like alien invaders to me until I identified them in David L. Wagner’s “Caterpillars of Eastern North America” and learned that they are a native species — and also that those urticating hairs can cause skin rashes.
Moths’ extra-special power: They will transform you into a citizen scientist, no binoculars required. In my case, an email also nudged me in that direction, from a sender I did not recognize.
“Can I have your data?” Dylan Cipkowski inquired, after establishing in the subject line that the topic was moths.
Cipkowski is a field biologist surveying the moths of Columbia County, New York, where I live, for the nonprofit Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program. He had seen photographs I posted online — and apparently photos, when tied to dates and locations, equal data. It turned out I had data on more than 100 species and counting.
Can you have my data? Well, of course.
I am now officially a data collector, no longer merely some madwoman wandering around in the dark with a camera. And being one has enriched my relationship with the place and all of its creatures.
Why focus on moths?
“One thing that makes moths interesting is their role in the food chain,” Cipkowski said. “They’re so crucial for birds and other animals.”
Many bird species, he said, rely on caterpillars as high-value food to sustain their young, while other species, including bats, spiders and birds, consume adult moths.
Farmscape Ecology — run by Conrad Vispo, a biologist, Claudia Knab-Vispo, a botanist, and Anna Duhon, a social anthropologist — is retained by clients like land trusts to do natural-resource inventories. If a prospective client doesn’t ask about moths specifically, the staff may suggest adding them to the menu.
“Once they hear how diverse and compelling moths are, they usually want them counted, too,” Cipkowski said. “Also, the fact that they are elusive and understudied compared to other large insects gets people excited — and especially when they learn that some species are pollinators.”
The estimate is that there are about 1,500 species in Columbia County and some 3,400 in New York state. So far, Farmscape Ecology has counted 644 (and 89 butterfly species, by comparison).
How do moths differ from butterflies?
Loosely speaking, Cipkowski said, butterflies could be described as a type of moth that has evolved to fly by day. That said, some moth species are day flyers, so like other typically cited distinctions, it’s not absolute.
Both are in the order Lepidoptera — from the Greek for “scaled wings” — as they are covered in microscopic scales that serve various functions, including making escape from a sticky spiderweb possible. Losing a few scales beats losing your life.
Most moths have feathery antennae. Butterflies’ threadlike antennae are usually clubbed at the ends. At rest, moths generally hold their wings open, either flat or tented over their bodies; most butterflies hold theirs closed overhead.
A majority of adult butterflies draw nectar from flowers. Certain moths do, too. But at the other extreme, some moths (including silk moths such as the luna, cecropia and polyphemus) do not feed in their short adult phase, focusing only on reproduction.
What do moths eat?
I asked one of the authors of “Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America” that question in 2012, when the book was published.
“One of the fascinating things about moths, as a group, is that if it in any way resembles a plant, there’s a moth that eats it,” said Seabrooke Leckie, a Canadian biologist who wrote the guide and a subsequent Southeastern volume with David Beadle.
Aided by the book and BugGuide.net, I then found three species with lichen in their common names. Usually when a moth’s common name includes a plant or plantlike word, its caterpillars feed primarily or exclusively on that. Lichen moth caterpillars feed on a plant look-alike that is actually a composite organism — a fungi living together with an alga. (See what you can learn by surrendering to moths?)
How to watch moths
“Moths are everywhere,” the Peterson guide begins — which is particularly true on warm evenings, as far from light pollution as possible. The visitors you get will change throughout the season; different species have distinct flight periods.
Flipping on the porch light will attract some customers, but here’s a better way: Outdoors, on a wall or using rope, stretch a white cotton sheet within extension-cord range of an electric outlet. Plug in a clamp-on light socket fitted with an inexpensive, black, compact fluorescent lightbulb. (A reminder: Light pollution at night is a major killer of insects, particularly moths, contributing to global insect decline, so if you have security lights, operate them on a motion sensor or switch bulbs to yellow LEDs, which are less attractive to insects.)
Have a headlamp? Take a garden stroll, plotting a course for tubular flowers.
“A way to see the moths is looking at deep-throated flowers on summer nights, like Monarda, that the sphinx moths nectar at,” Cipkowski said. Phlox paniculata is another target.
The best part, he said: “If you have a headlamp on, you’ll see their eyeshine.”
Careful, or as with bird-watching, you’ll start playing favorites. Cipkowski and I both love the group called underwings (genus Catocala), whose forewings are marbled in neutral grays and tans like antique book endpapers, rendering them unseen on tree bark.
Nudge one wing ever so gently aside with a fingertip, though, and you’ll reveal hindwings patterned like colorful petticoats — often striped in brown and gold, reddish or orange, a peekaboo costume befitting the brashest strumpet.
“To be up at night, outside, mostly just sitting there, while it was pretty quiet,” Cipkowski said, “with the only sounds the insects batting against the sheet sometimes and an occasional owl — it’s really a different perspective on the natural world.”