When the sun sets, a host of beautiful nocturnal creatures comes to life, including moths of all shapes, colors, patterns and sizes. Some are iridescent. Others have long, feathery antennae or striped legs or showy wings. Fascinated by these nighttime flyers, naturalists around the world endeavor to learn more through a simple activity. And you can, too.
Mothing. It’s like birding, but with moths.
Usually the activity involves using a light to attract moths to a specific area at nighttime. It can be as simple as leaving your porch light on and casually checking it before bedtime and in the morning to see what types of moths it lures to your home. Or it can be more complex, with a set up that features lights of different colors, backdrops for the moths to land on, guidebooks for looking up species and magnifying glasses for closer inspection.
“It’s really exciting — the colors, the variability and diversity,” said Melissa Duron, who started mothing a few years ago while working as a biologist at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland. “The more that I saw how colorful they were, and even how sparkly the tiny ones were, I just got hooked.”
Mothing in Maine
To date, biologists and photographers have identified just over 11,400 species of moths living in North America, according to the North American Moth Photographers Group at the Mississippi Entomological Museum. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of those moths can be found in the eastern half of the continent, and more species are being discovered all the time.
“I’ve found new stuff that had not really been documented in Maine yet,” Duron said. “So I think with more eyes on moths, we’re going to see new stuff.”
In Maine, Duron uses New England moth guidebooks and Canada moth guidebooks because she finds that she needs both. To date, she’s found and documented 246 moth species in Maine, all within a few summers.
“They have hilarious names, too,” Duron said. “There’s the bride, and the betrothed, the mournful.”
She’s found a moth called the unicorn prominent, named because its caterpillar form has a unicorn horn-like protrusion. She’s also photographed peppered moths, asteroid moths, blurry chocolate angle moths and night-wandering dagger moths. As it turns out, entomologists like to get creative with their names.
The best times to go mothing in Maine are during warm nights, she said. An abundance of moth species are out and about by June, and by July, the season is in full swing. In fact, National Moth Week is held mid-July. This year, it’s July 18-26.
How to try mothing
Mothing is an easy, fun activity that can introduce you to a whole new world, and your setup can be as simple or elaborate as you want. National Moth Week provides online tips for beginners. One suggestion is to simply leave on your porch light or, if you’re in the wilderness, a flashlight or lantern. And the next step up would be to use a black light, which emits a color spectrum that tends to attract more moths.
“I use a DJ light, like for dancing at a club, and it works great,” Duron said. “You can plug them into a battery pack or use an extension cord.”
Moths need a surface to land on. If you’re leaving on your porch light, that surface may be your house. But many moth-ers like to hang fabric, such as a white sheet, so they can easily spot moths and photograph them.
“Last year, I had one of these big metal shelving units on wheels and I just placed a sheet around that,” said Jada Fitch, an artist from Addison who enjoys mothing as well as photographing and painting moths.
For people who want to photograph moths, Fitch suggests using a white light source, such as a headlamp, phone flashlight, makeup ring light or handheld sewing light. That way, you can capture details and many colors. In fact, she often captures the moths using a container (such as a Tupperware container) and thick paper, transferring them from the sheet to a nearby table where she places them on a white piece of paper and photographs them with her phone. She also suggests using a magnifying glass to see smaller features in more detail.
“They’re very cooperative most of the time,” Fitch said. “The closer you look, the more intricate you notice their patterns are. Some are kind of iridescent.”
Fitch and Duron have gone mothing together several times, often at their friend Lauren Gilpatrick’s house in Freeport. And over the years, they’ve learned a few things about how to best enjoy the nighttime activity.
For best results, they use more than one light, setting up both a black light and a white light. The different color lights might attract different species, they think. In addition, they sometimes put out a sweet mixture that some moths are attracted to by scent. A common recipe for this is mashed up banana mixed with beer, left out for a few days in the sun.
They also record their finds on the iNaturalist mobile app, which suggests the species based on a photograph and your location.
The best time to go mothing
Different moths show up at different times of night, and at different times of year. In addition, you’ll find different species depending on the type of habitats nearby. Some moths favor meadows, while others dwell in bogs.
“The warmer the night, I think the more moths show up,” Fitch said. “It also helps if it’s cloudy and no moon. The moon sort of attracts them, so it’s nice if you don’t have that to compete with.”
Fitch suggests going outside to check your light every 30 minutes or so, and to stay up as late as you’d like. Often — especially when mothing with friends — she stays up until midnight or so. But sometimes they stay up all night.
“I think you can see good stuff between 9 p.m. and midnight, even just from your house lights,” Duron said. “But I always say the best stuff comes out after midnight.”
And lastly, while mothing can be a fun solo activity, it’s also fun to do socially.
“I think that anyone who spends even a little time appreciating nature would enjoy mothing,” Duron said. “I had a [mothing] event at a house in Portland. People asked if they could invite friends, and I wasn’t sure what we’d get. So many people showed up and they were all intrigued, and from all walks of life. Everyone had questions and wanted to look at the moths closer. So I think it has a wide appeal.”
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors.