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Nocturnal Insects (What Time is it in Nature)

July 25, 2015

It’s National Moth Week! To celebrate, we hosted our fourth annual Moths at Night program at Prairie Ridge last weekend. During the event, a few Museum staff did presentations about moths and the other arthropods we find at night, but the bulk of the event centered around moth observation and appreciation. We set up several blacklight stations and a mercury vapor light station and participants moved from station to station looking for moths and other insects. Many participants photographed the moths they saw so they can submit them our Natural North Carolina citizen science project as well.

Let’s explore some moths and other insects that you can find at Prairie Ridge! Many of these will only be visible at evening programs, but you can spot some of them during the day if you’re lucky.

A lot of the moths we get at Prairie Ridge aren’t what you would call “showy” moths.  This leafroller moth is a great example of the standard small, brown moths that you’ll find anywhere you look for moths:

Leafroller moth

Photo by Chris Goforth

That’s Argyrotaenia velutinana, also known as the Red-banded Leafroller, a member of the Tortricidae family of moths.  There is very little information available about them, such as what their host plants are, how they develop, etc, so there’s not a lot to learn about this particular moth yet.  There is generally a lot of work still needed on what many entomologists affectionately call “LBMs,” or little brown moths.  Someday we may know more about this LBM!

We get dozens of small moth species at blacklights at Prairie Ridge.  This moth was a little more distinctive and showy compared to the Red-banded Leafroller above:

Grass Veneer

Photo by Chris Goforth

This moth belongs to the grass-veneer genus, a genus made up of small moths that feed on grasses as caterpillars.  Given the amount of grass we have at Prairie Ridge, it’s no wonder that we see a lot of grass-veneers!  This moth is a Double-banded Grass-veneer, or Crambus agitatellus.  You can find adults of this species from about June through August throughout most of its range across the eastern 2/3rds of the US.

Some moths have excellent camouflage.  This moth looks like bird droppings:

Bird Dropping Moth

Photo by Chris Goforth

The Exposed Bird Dropping Moth, Tarache aprica, is well protected from predation as few animals want to eat something that looks like bird poop.  You’ll find the caterpillars of this moth feeding on hollyhocks and can occasionally flush an adult from a hiding place during the day.   They’re found throughout most of the eastern US except the northern Midwest.

One exciting find at our blacklights this year was a satiny white visitor:

Snowy Urola

Photo by Chris Goforth

Snowy Urolas (Urola nivalis) are thought to be a grass feeding species as caterpillars and are found throughout the eastern US, though they are a common sight in the southeast.  This species has a shiny white appearance with a small dark spot in the center of its back.  They fly throughout the summer and may have two generations a year.

One of our most showy moths at our National Moth Week celebration the last four years has been the Rosy Maple Moth:

Rosy Maple Moth

Photo by Chris Goforth

These large, brightly colored moths go against the generality that butterflies are colorful while moths are not.  Rosy Maple Moths feed on a variety of trees as caterpillars, including their namesake maples, but do not feed at all as adults.  These gorgeous, bright members of the silk moth family are found throughout the eastern US and can be spotted at lights at night from late spring into early fall in the south.

We saw a lot of moths, but you never get just moths coming to blacklights.  Some other visitors to the lights included caddisflies:


Photo by Greg Bryant

and scarab beetles:

Grapevine beetle

Photo by Greg Bryant

When you have a lot of insects coming to lights, you often attract non-insect predators looking to score an easy meal too.  A few of our citizen scientists spotted this lovely toad wandering around near one of the light rigs:


Photo by Greg Bryant

There were so many insects flying around the area that I suspect that this was a very happy, well-fed toad!

National Moth Week ends Sunday, but I encourage you to explore moths and other nighttime insects throughout the year.  By simply turning on your porchlight and looking to see what comes to the light, you can learn a lot about the hidden nighttime world around you.  We hope you’ll also consider attending an upcoming evening program at Prairie Ridge so that you can see some of the great moths featured here and other amazing nighttime animals!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

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