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In his backyard in Steuben, insect enthusiast Michael “Tony” Roberts has collected, identified and preserved thousands of moths. Now 78 years old, he’s donating his massive collection to science, to be used by researchers well into the future.
In late October, the collection — which fills nine large steel cabinets — was loaded into a moving truck and transported to the Maine State Museum’s natural science and archeological annex in Augusta. There, museum curators and volunteers from the Maine Entomological Society painstakingly catalogued the 25,000 specimens to discover that Roberts had collected some 1,700 individual species of Maine moths.
“The collection is just irreplaceable,” said Bob Nelson, an officer of the Maine Entomological Society who helped with the project. “He’s such a meticulous observer of the natural world.”
At the Maine State Museum, the collection was divided, and the bulk of it was packaged and shipped to the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity in Florida, home to one of the world’s largest collections of butterflies and moths. A small but diverse portion of the collection was set aside to remain at the Maine State Museum for researchers to reference and use in future exhibits and educational displays.
“I’m glad they’re going to a permanent home,” Roberts said. “These specimens will become the things that people in the 22nd century will be studying to figure out what the world looked like in the late 20th century, looking back from an utterly different world.”
A lifelong passion
Roberts started chasing bugs when he was just a boy growing up in the Bronx.
“I never went outside without a net in my hand,” Roberts said. “I looked for butterflies and moths and caterpillars and so forth. Of course, I never know what I was doing.”
Roberts founded the first junior entomological society in New York when he was a teenager. Later, he went to Harvard University, where he studied under William T. M. Forbes, one of the greatest experts in moths and butterflies in the country at the time.
But it was Roberts’ other great passion — literature — that won out. After graduating from Harvard, he earned a Ph.D. at Yale University, where he taught literature for 13 years. He then worked as a writer and editor for the United Nations in New York City before moving to eastern Maine in 1983, with his wife, Amy. They’d had enough of the city, he said.
Roberts remembers the night when he delved back into the world of moths. It was in the summer of 1987. His wife was away visiting her parents in Connecticut, and he decided to turn on an ultraviolet light, which attracts moths — just for fun.
“Suddenly, it was like having a relapse,” he said. “It was like my childhood when I was absolutely passionate about this. It was like the rekindling of this extinct love affair. It’s really an adolescent kind of passion.”
Capturing thousands of moths
To collect moths, Roberts used a “passive aggressive light trap.” The contraption included ultraviolet lights surrounding a fan, which pulled the moths through a smooth tunnel and into a large net enclosure.
“In the morning, I’d go in [to the enclosure] and everything would still be in there alive,” Roberts said. “I’d pick out whatever needed representing.”
Roberts would then euthanize the moths by freezing them in glass vials, then pin them, wings outstretched, in display boxes.
Even for people who pay close attention to moths, it may seem impossible that Roberts found 1,700 different species in a small coastal Maine town. But Roberts specializes in microlepidoptera, or “micromoths,” a group of tiny moths that are especially easy for the everyday person to overlook. Some of these moths are smaller than the nail on your little finger.
“I have a feeling that the urge to collect stuff is somehow innate,” Roberts said. “And the specific urge to collect smaller and smaller moths is something I don’t think anybody can determine, but people like us do pop up once in a while.”
Identifying moths — especially micromoths — can be a tedious process that involves dissecting their genitalia. Small moths are also a challenge to pin for preservation and display simply because their wings are so small and fragile.
“It’s incredibly time consuming,” said Charlene Donahue, president of the Maine Entomological Society. “A lot of times it’s something that you do because you’re interested in it, not because you’re getting paid for it. It’s something you have to be passionate about.”
In 1997, Roberts presented a paper about his growing moth collection at a conference at Acadia National Park. At the time, his collection included 100 species not included in the key moth reference in Maine at that time: “A List of The Lepidoptera of Maine” by Auburn E. Brower, James W. Longest and Louis A. Ploch.
It’s now believed that Maine is home to about 4,000 moth species, Donahue said, though they haven’t all been discovered or named.
Why moths matter
Like all living things, moths have a place in the ecosystem. They’re an integral part of the food chain.
“It takes thousands of caterpillars [which are moth larvae] to feed a clutch of chickadees,” Donahue said. “[Moths are] vitally important and we don’t even recognize that they’re here because they fly at night and you generally don’t see them.”
Butterflies are more visible because they’re often more colorful and fly during the day. Yet there are only about 185 species of butterflies in Maine, compared with the thousands of species of moths.
All insects are key players in the natural world, therefore, changes in their populations can indicate large-scale changes to ecosystems due to climate change, pollution and other factors. This is another reason why insect collections are valuable. They can be used to map changes over time.
The importance of this became clear to Roberts in 2003, when he noticed a sharp decline in the number of insects at his home. He attributed the phenomena to climate change, a term that was just starting to be used to describe a trend of rising temperatures worldwide due to greenhouse gases.
“I didn’t take him seriously,” Nelson said. “I don’t know anybody who took him seriously at the time, but now of course, it’s a big deal — now that it’s been authenticated by scientific studies elsewhere. Tony [Roberts] noticed it over 15 years ago.”
Nowadays, Roberts said that he wouldn’t be able to find many of the moth species that he collected in the 1980s and 1990s at his home. Either they’ve migrated north, following the boreal forest, or they’ve died out. Either way, his collection will serve future researchers in understanding our changing world.