Celebrating Moths with Maine Audubon

Moths are an underappreciated, relatively little-known group of insects. They aren’t just little brown bugs that come to your porch light! Varying from leaf miners (at barely 0.1 inches long) to the Atlas Moth of Asia (with a wingspan of over 12 inches — around the same size as the world’s largest butterfly!), they are some of the most diverse and successful creatures in the world. Yet you rarely see them, and most people pay them no mind. I urge you to start!

Mothing can be as easy as checking the surfaces around outdoor lights at night, or carefully and observantly walking through a field. In the fall, you can slather sugary bait on trees to bring in moths that are hungry and unable to find flowers, both allowing you to study them and giving them a snack! Dedicated mothing enthusiasts may even lug a generator out into the wilderness to power a light and attract a whole new array of species.

As caterpillars, they require plants to feed upon. Many adults also nectar at plants, although some species lack mouths and digestive systems. Some moths only have one host plant, and are often very reliable in association with that plant — if you have the plant, you get the moth along with it. Other moths have numerous hosts, some even feeding on all members of a family or all deciduous trees, making them ubiquitous. Even in cities like Portland, moths are around as long as some native plants are present.

A boy looks at moths on a sheet during a mothing night at Gilsland Farm
A boy looks at moths on a sheet during a 2017 mothing night at Gilsland Farm. (Ariana van den Akker/Maine Audubon)

Insects were what originally drew me into nature, kindling a serious passion. I was in awe of caterpillars at the age of ten, and my curiosity then led me to moths. It amazed me that this insect would weave a cocoon and reinvent itself into an aerial wonder after creeping along plant stems for its whole life. Over the past eight years, I have done extensive mothing in my rural Searsmont yard, spending countless nights photographing nocturnal insects drawn to my light. I have gained a profound love and respect for these animals through the sleepless nights, and hours spent scouring books and online resources to put a name to all the 800+ species I have found occurring in my yard. The vast intricacies and variations of size, shape, color, life histories, and placements in the ecosystem are truly amazing.

In 2012, National Moth Week was started — a week-long project in late July organized by the East Brunswick (NJ) Environmental Commission in the hopes of broadening public knowledge and appreciation of these insects, while also contributing to science. Six years later, National Moth Week events across the globe continue to connect people with nature, and enhance our grasp on moth abundance.

This year, I’ll be celebrating National Moth Week on Thursday, July 26, at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Starting at 8 pm, I will give a presentation, then staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox and I will move into the orchard and spend the rest of the evening around a light, observing and identifying the nightlife of Gilsland Farm — at the same time as thousands of others around the world! Please consider joining us!