Wild Side: Mothing

One of the fastest-growing hobbies on the Island.


When I began to watch birds as a kid of 7 or 8, birdwatching was something of a fringe activity, and its practitioners were considered mildly eccentric. But over the years, birding has approached normalcy; millions bird casually, hundreds of thousands of serious birders are kicking thickets across the country, a global bird-tour industry had developed, and there has even been a feature movie successfully released about an extreme form of bird chasing (“The Big Year”).

Recently, propelled by social media, online identification resources, and a proliferation of reliable print field guides, interest in other kinds of wildlife has begun to follow the developmental path of birding. “Herping” (the pursuit of reptiles and amphibians), butterfly- and dragonfly-watching, even beetle-watching, have begun catching on as amateur activities — not exactly mainstream ones, but not exactly rare ones, either.

Perhaps the fastest-growing of these hobbies is mothing, the observation, identification, and study of nocturnal Lepidoptera. While hardly a fad among the general population, mothing events have captured the interest of a certain subset of naturalists. And with good reason. Moths are incredibly diverse (several thousand species undoubtedly occur on Martha’s Vineyard, for example). Some of them are stunningly beautiful. And as a group, moths feature a lot of interesting biology, major ecological importance, and a multitude of unanswered questions.

Moth study can take many forms. While scientific investigation often relies on trapping, which procures rock-solid documentation in the form of specimens, amateurs often prefer the more amicable process of setting up lights to attract moths, and then standing by to watch as the insects come in. At its simplest form, this may simply mean leaving your porch light on at night. In more sophisticated forms, moth-ers set up special lights producing wavelengths known to be especially attractive to moths. Mothing events, essentially nocturnal parties centered on a moth light setup, have become a popular way for enthusiasts to mix observation with socializing and the exchange of information.

While I fully appreciate the diversity and ecological importance of moths, I’m sorry to say I’ve sadly neglected them. With so many other observers focused on moths, it has always seemed that my own time would best be spent concentrating on groups getting less attention. Moreover, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with some true moth experts. It’s so easy for me to get a question answered or a photograph ID’ed that there has been little incentive for me to learn on my own.

Over the years, though, I’ve done quite a bit of moth trapping, placing traps out in moth habitat, collecting and cleaning up the trap contents, but then leaving the identification of the moths to experts. Along the way, I’ve often been amazed by the number and diversity of moths that end up in a trap. And my curiosity has often been piqued by specimens of particular beauty or bizarreness. So when presented recently with the opportunity to spend part of a night at a moth sheet, I felt the time had come to give mothing a try. Teá Kesting-Handly, an insect surveyor for the state Department of Agriculture, recently visited the Vineyard to conduct research. She invited me to join her at the Nature Conservancy’s Hoft Farm Preserve in West Tisbury. The operation had a vaguely industrial air about it. A large white sheet, perhaps five feet square, was spread upright in a field on a framework of PVC piping. Large mercury-vapor bulbs hung in front of each side of the sheet, and a portable Honda generator churned away nearby, feeding current to the lamps through extension cords. Even before it got fully dark, insects of many kinds were coming in and perching on the sheet.

Numerically, the mix of insects was dominated by flies, not moths: Hundreds of midges, apparently representing just one or at most a few species, dotted the sheet. A few scarab beetles, a couple of robber flies, and some leafhoppers were also pulled in by the light.

But as the evening light dimmed, the moth activity picked up. Many were tiny; most were nondescript, mottled, grayish jobs; but some were large and beautifully marked insects. As large as your hand, a couple of Prometheus moths fluttered in. A pale green luna moth flopped ineptly in the grass near the sheet. Large yellow imperial and io moths arrived. Compact and colorful, several species of sphinx moths, each with a wingspan of close to two inches, darted in, stuck to the sheet as if attaching by Velcro, and rested there.

As each new type of moth arrived, Teá named it and summarized its biology — what its larvae eat, how much adults vary in appearance, how common it is, and when it flies. I just love this stuff! I learned more about moths in three hours than I had in the previous three years. For now, my focus remains on the groups of insects I’m already working on. But the evening was memorable, and it’s clear that more moths, and more mothing events, are in my future.