the moth project

This week, I decided to splurge on something that is (for me) a bit of an extravagance — one of those objects often referred to as a “bug zapper”. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Why would someone who loves insects buy a bug zapper?” Good question — and I’ll get to that in a moment.

As some of you know, I like to photograph moths and have been doing so for a few years. It’s always been a very casual thing. I see a few moths outside around the porch lamp during the brief moments when it’s switched on, grab my camera, and go out to shoot a few photos. When I have a bit of spare time, I sit down and try to ID the moths, and then they go up into my online moth gallery on Pbase.

I’ve fooled around a little (emphasis on little) with a couple of kinds of bulbs in the porch lamp to see if the moths might come better to one or another. Most of the experiments have proven to be only modestly successful. However, this year, in an attempt to learn more about the moth population here at the farm, I decided to work out a better system for observing moths. To that end, I decided to rig up some kind of UV light as they are known to be quite effective at attracting the interest of night-flying insects. So, last week, I visited a well-known big box hardware store to check out their UV bulb collection. I soon found the only two styles of UV bulbs in the “pest” department between the “bug zappers” and the rat traps. I examined the bulbs (they are U-shaped 40 watt fluorescent-type bulbs), and saw that they would require a certain kind of wiring and ballast. After wandering around in the lamp department for a couple of minutes, a “lamp specialist” came up to me and asked if I could use some help. I showed him the bug zapper light and told him that I wanted to find a “regular lamp” that I could put it in to use for attracting insects without killing them. He gave me a “you-weirdo look” and said that they only sold the murderous type of lamp — the bug zappers in the pest department. I did eventually find a lamp that would probably have worked with the bug zapper’s UV lamp, but the cost of it and the bulb were more than the price of a zapper, so I decided to just buy one of those and either try to disarm the zapping mechanism, or simply cover the lamp with something that would prevent moths from entering the zapper chamber.

I brought the unit home, and as luck would have it, that evening was ideal for some moth observation. I set the zapper on a lawn chair in the front garden, covered it with a white cotton sheet, plugged it in, and waited. Within a couple of minutes, moths began to collect on the sheet. I went out with my camera and photographed everyone who showed up, and then turned off the light as I don’t want to be too disruptive to the moths.

The most interesting moths of the night were a couple of Northern Apple Sphinx (Sphinx poecila — Hodges # 7810.1) — see above photo and click on it for a larger view. Now, I’m fairly certain that most gardeners would be at least somewhat horrified to find these in their garden under their apple trees, but I just thought, “Wow! How cool!” and am hoping that they laid some eggs on the apple trees so that I get a chance to see their large, colorful larvae later on this summer.

Among the smaller moths that I photographed was this pretty one (above) which I’m quite sure is a Venerable Dart Moth (Agrotis venerabilis — Hodges # 10651). Its larva is a type of cutworm and, no doubt, eats some worthy plant or tree — such is the reality of mother nature.

There were quite a few other moths, some of which I’ve ID’d and some that will have to wait until I have time to spend comparing them with images in books and on websites.

Also seen were that nemesis of nocturnal moth photographers — the abundant and annoying June Bugs (Phyllophaga sp.) — see below. They come rocketing out of the dark and pelt themselves into your face or dive into your long hair, where they buzz their crackly wings until they are well and truly entangled, and ruin what would otherwise be a perfect evening. Oh well!

A point of some interest is that, any time my mom checks out my moth photos, she reminisces on how she always wanted a camera to photograph moths at our cottage up on the Ottawa River. In the 1960s, the screen door on the front porch used to be absolutely loaded with moths every evening from spring through autumn. How fantastic it would have been to have the equipment to record the diversity of species that would have been found back in those days before the land developers moved in and hacked down so much of the forest around there. Alas, those were the days long before digital, when a decent camera and macro lens would have cost an arm and a leg, and one would have gone broke trying to pay for the film and processing for just one evening of shooting!

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9 Responses to “the moth project”

  1. robin andrea Says:

    I knew you wouldn’t be zapping bugs, bev! What a great idea. Your mom’s story reminds me of the moths at our screen door in summer in the 60s. Yes, there were many of them. I wish I could remember them all. I do remember traveling across country for the first time in 1970 and camping in Colorado. A walk to the bathrooms, where there were fluorescent lights, was amazing. Every size of winged thing was flying there. One of our traveling companions got a moth in his ear that night, and he swore he could hear it flapping for a few days after.

  2. bev Says:

    robin – I’ll bet you would have seen some great moths in the 60s and also camping in Colorado in 1970. I don’t think we see near the concentrations and diversity of moths these days due to reduction of diversity in forests and native vegetation, and also because of spraying of pesticides to eliminate certain destructive species of one or another kind of moth (lots of collateral damage to many of our native species). Of the really large moths such as the Luna and Cecropia, so many are parasitized by introduced species of flies and wasps that were intended as controls for introduced moths. Again, lots of other moth larvae are caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

  3. Duncan Says:

    Hi Bev, I went through the exercise a few months ago, but went to an electrical wholesaler’s, where the very helpful fellows fixed me up with a self-ballasted mercury vapour lamp and holder. Cost me about 70 dollars. In contrast to your experience they were very interested in my plans for the lamp, nice to deal with people like that. Works very well.

  4. Wayne Says:

    Bev – after looking at the moth photographs I caught the june bug and thought – that’s not a moth! So there’s hope for me yet.

    I was visiting our resident wildlife biologist in the area and noticed a funnel arrangement under an outside house light. He was collecting nocturnal moths with the intent to identify them. A great idea.

    Unfortunately he hasn’t gone the next step that you have, which is to memorialize his findings other than as a list on a sheet of paper. I’ve been *very* gently trying to suggest this but he’s quite resistant. I think he sees it as an insurmountable problem to deal with a blog-type software presentation, and more work than he wants to do to document things in a public way.

    Obviously he’s old school. Thank goodness some of us are not.

  5. bev Says:

    Wayne – One of my moth books has diagrams for constructing various kinds of moth traps. It’s something I’ve never tried. THis summer, I’m considering pit traps for beetles as I think that’s the only way to get a good idea of the beetles in an area. It’s really too bad their your wildlife biologist neighbor isn’t into putting his findings up online, either in a blog, or a photo gallery on something like Flikr. I do think that the presence of all of these observations helps to foster interest in species diversity, so it’s really worth making the effort.

  6. kerrdelune Says:

    Bev, have Cecropias or Polyphemus moths come to your bug light? I haven’t seen them here, but when I was a kid, we liked to watch them hovering around the veranda lights after dark. I owe my interest in bugs generally and moths specifically to spending a few magical evenings outside with my dad watching and discussing them (was about six years old as I recall).

  7. bev Says:

    Hi Kerr – I have not yet had Cecropias or Polyphemus come to the porch light, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if we get them around this new light set-up this summer. I now that we have Cecropia around our place as I’ve found both caterpillars and cocoons in gardens and surrounding fields. Apparently, Cecropia moths are attracted to lights, so we’ll see if that happens. We did get a couple at the porch lamp at our cottage on the Ottawa River near Dunrobin back in the 60s and those made something of an impression on me as well!

  8. Laiku Oh Says:

    Please take a look:
    It’s rather grainy, I’m afraid, but I think it’s clear enough. To me it’s a quite curious moth, with a small body and almost translucent, whitish winds with beige bands. It looked like a juvenile moth to me, and it was so still, I thought it was dead.

  9. Laiku Oh Says:

    Sorry, double post… I thought it hadn’t posted before because I couldn’t find it. Thanks for identifying the moth!

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