If you have been following FOL on Facebook, you may have noticed that I started photographing moths this year.
It’s been a quite amazing and surprising experience. Most people think of moths as drab brown and grey “butterflies” that fly at night. Not quite accurate. There is an astonishing variety in sizes, shapes and colors (including green, bright red and orange) and some moths fly during the day. In just a few weeks, I have photographed and identified over a hundred different species of moths. Not an evening goes by that I don’t see at least one (usually at least three or four) species I haven’t seen before. Some species I see every night. You have to check frequently though, because some don’t stay very long.
There is a lot of different behavior around the light; some just buzz by and hit the sheet or light (or me) a few times and fly off again; some move over the sheet and take a long time before they settle down, some appear to fall asleep - clamp down on the sheet and are hard to shake off, some take off again as soon as the beam of the flash light gets a little too close.
Some run away, some fly right at the camera (or in your face). They don’t just land on the sheet (front OR back), they will also settle on the ground or anything near, including you (especially if you’re wearing white!) I had something fairly heavy land on my neck one night and - holding my camera in my right hand - brushed it off with my left hand. I didn’t have to grab my flashlight to see what is was,… stinkbug! The flashlight will help you find those that settle on the ground and nearby structures as well as help you see the colors of the moths. Moths can look quite differently by UV light than flashlight or daylight.
I soon realized that not only moths are attracted to the UV light; I see lots of beetles (including stag beetles and longhorn beetles), plant hoppers and leaf hoppers, may flies, mantid flies, katydids and so on. You will see insects that somewhat look like moths (caddis flies for instance) and some moths that don’t look like moths (like clearwings).
To identify the moths that you see, the new 2012 Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie) is a great start. Is is much easier to use than the previous one by Charles Covell. The new Peterson shows the moths in their natural resting position (not specimens pinned in a collection with fully spread wings). In the back pages silhouettes/outlines are shown of the different groups/families. That is a great place to start. Sometimes this book is not enough. Even though this guide covers a lot of species and variations, not all species/variations you may encounter are in this book. That would be impossible for a field guide. Fortunately, besides digital photography, this is also the age of the Internet. Two website that I use often are BugGuide.net and the Moth Photographers Group.
Another book about moths than I enjoy a lot is “Discovering Moths – Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard” by John Himmelman. There are some nice photos in this book identifying the species, but it is not a field guide. There is a lot of information about the life cycle of moths, the different families, how to attract moths, collect, photograph, rear them; as well as a lot of very entertaining moth stories.
If you want to try this for yourself, you do not need much and it is not expensive at all.
What I use:
My set up is pretty simple.
I bought one of those energy-saving new light bulbs (about $5) - a UV light bulb because UV bulbs /blacklight attract moths better than regular light bulbs. I put it in a clamp-on “trouble light”. (This is basically a half round aluminum reflector with a lamp socket in the center and a spring loaded clamp.) If you have a desk lamp for instance, that will work too.
I clamp this to an old video camera tripod and then direct the light to a piece of white cotton cloth that I drape over a washing line. Cotton is preferable since it reflects UV light, synthetic material does not. Turn light on when it gets dark.
Be ready to be amazed!