Butterflies and moths share characteristics that make them Lepidoptera (meaning scale-winged insects) but they are miles apart in public perception. Consider this: When a butterfly lands on someone, everyone wants a photo or video. If a moth were to land on someone, the general result is a frantic, spasmodic dance to rid oneself of this visitor.
Butterflies can do no evil. Moths, with their nocturnal habit and tendency to pupate in our flour or chew up our woolen clothes and blankets, don't get the same amount of love as do butterflies.
To help dispel this image flaw, moths take center stage during the 12th annual National Moth Week, July 22 through July 30. This global, citizen-science event, a project of the Friends of the East Brunswick (N.J.) Environmental Commission, shines some light on these amazing creatures and encourages "moth-ers" of all ages and abilities to observe and record moths in their urban or rural yards and neighborhoods.
"National Moth Week is a model of international cooperation," said Liti Haramaty, who co-founded NMW with David Moskowitz, Ph.D. "Our international team, country coordinators and partner organizations share a love and concern for the environment, and especially for moths, which play an essential role in agriculture and the natural world."
The idea for a National Moth Week metamorphosed from a popular local mothing night organized by Moskowitz and Haramaty, into a statewide, then international citizen-science project. Individuals or groups register their moth-night events and participants are encouraged to photograph and submit those moth images to various partnering organizations. As a comparison, the Beijing Olympics hosted 91 countries, and nearly 120 countries have participated in NMW since its inception.
"There's still much to learn about the life histories of innumerable species of moths. Moths that have agricultural economic impact are pretty well studied," said Carl Barrentine, retired associate professor of Humanities and Biology in the Integrated Studies program at the University of North Dakota and current extreme moth-er in Spokane, Washington. "I reckon we've over 3,000 species of moths here in the PNW and we've pretty complete knowledge on fewer than 250 species."
Over the last six years of mothing in his Spokane backyard, Barrentine has captured and photographed 815 different species, represented by 46 families. "Comparatively, I've found and photographed five families of native butterflies here in my yard, representing about 45 butterfly species," said Barrentine.
Bendite Bob Johnson has run a light trap at his downtown home for several years and has documented over 200 species.
"I became interested in moths after seeing one of Carl Barrentine's mothing videos on YouTube," said Johnson. "I'd pretty much seen all the birds one can see around here, but here was this other vast secret world that's around us all the time, which might be surprisingly easy to observe, but which I didn't know anything about."
In Tim Blackburn's new book, "The Jewel Box: How Moths Illuminate Nature's Hidden Rules," he writes about how moths represent the pollinator evening shift and highlights how important moths and their caterpillars are to predators such as birds, parasitoid wasps, bats and amphibians.
To explore backyard moths, Johnson recommends hanging a sheet from a line and shining a light on it, and, like the famous line from "Field of Dreams," "If you build it, they will come." Moth-ers are encouraged to take photos and upload them into one of the partnering organizations of NMW for identification and to contribute to this growing knowledge of these creatures.
A night of mothing is like a day fishing. "The intriguing thing is the lure of novelty: expecting the unexpected and anticipating serendipity," said Barrentine. "And that makes waking up tomorrow something to anticipate for this 70-year-old biologist who yearns to be a 10-year-old boy again." Barrentine's YouTube videos reflects this passion and, who knows, maybe it is time you let that inner moth-er out into the light.