Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Mingling with moths late into the night

            If you forget to turn your porch light off before going to bed, you may wake up to a mass of moths and other insects clinging to the side of your house. For most people, that’s not an appealing thought. But to moth aficionados, that scenario is as exciting as Opening Day to Red Sox fans.
            Moths are often maligned as pests, and indeed some of the best-known species are – like invasive gypsy moths and winter moths that have defoliated much of Rhode Island’s forests in recent years (though it’s their caterpillar stage that does all the damage). But the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of kinds of moths found in our area are harmless and
play a beneficial role in the environment. Most moth caterpillars, for instance, are the primary food source for many of our breeding songbirds.
            I cannot claim to be a moth expert, but my appreciation for moths has been growing since I’ve been attending the annual Moth Mingle sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. The event illustrates the diversity of moth species in the region by hanging a powerful light bulb in front of a white sheet in a meadow after dark and waiting for moths to arrive. They also set up an illuminated moth trap in the woods and paint a malodorous concoction of beer, yeast, and rotting fruit on tree trunks for those species that prefer a stinky meal.
            The action at the sheet started fast this year. Once it got dark out, hundreds of tiny caddis flies arrived from out of nowhere to cling to the sheet, and then the parade of moths began. They started small, then grew in size, and their amazing patterns, shapes and colors were impressive.
There were zebra-striped varieties, delicate pale green ones, bold wood-grained specimens, a big beige one with fuzzy legs, and a large number of cream-colored moths with tan highlights. It sounds almost like a Halloween parade, and sometimes it felt like that as new species repeatedly showed up to show off.
I have no idea what species they were – few people around here do – but that wasn’t necessary. It was just a fun couple of hours acknowledging the wonderful diversity of life that we wouldn’t even know existed unless we stayed up way past our bedtime to attend events like the Moth Mingle.
And it wasn’t just moths that showed their face at the sheet. Lots of other insects did, too. Like grasshoppers, ladybugs, click beetles, stinkbugs, lacewings, treehoppers, and a praying mantis. There was even a giant stag beetle the size of my thumb with a monster-sized pair of pincers. It was a great learning experience for the dozen intrepid humans crowding around the sheet trying to get a close-up look at every creature that made an appearance.
I was so excited by what I saw and learned that night that I tried to create my own Moth Mingle in my backyard. I hung an old bedsheet on the side of my shed and drove my car into the backyard and shined the headlights on the sheet. When I came back an hour later to see what insects had arrived, my car battery was dead and not a single moth was in sight.
Clearly, I did something wrong. Maybe I need a different kind of light bulb. Or maybe I’ll just leave my porch light on all night and hope for the best. At least I won’t lose any sleep that way.

This article first appeared in The Independent on August 15, 2019.

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