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Celebrating Moths During National Moth Week

July 30, 2016

This year marks the fifth annual National Moth Week and the Museum celebrated once again with its annual Moths At Night program at Prairie Ridge. Each year, we invite the public to take advantage of a series of attractive lights, baits, and educational talks to learn more about moths, make some observations, and share those observations with citizen science projects.

visitors checking out moths at one of the blacklights

We typically have bad luck with this program and have had a big storm just before or during the event each year, but this year we had no rain and a warm night with no moon. As a result, we had some particularly excellent moths!

About 55 participants ranging in age from about 5 to retired adults attended Moths at Night this year and were treated to a variety of exceptional moths. We saw many of our usual moths, such as the Rosy Maple Moth:

Rosy maple moth

… the Tan Wave:

Tan wave

…. and the Elegant Grass Veneer:

elegant grass veneer

Rosy Maple Moth caterpillars feed on maples (as their name suggests!), Tan Waves feed on goldenrods and oaks, and Elegant Grass Veneers are found feeding on grass in lawns. Given how many of the host plants we have at Prairie Ridge, it’s no wonder that there are so many of each of these species represented in our National Moth Week observations.

Some moth species are not spotted every year, but have appeared more than once at past events. One excellent example is the Beautiful Wood Nymph:

Beautiful Wood Nymph

This moth is thought to mimic bird droppings as a defense against predators as few things are interested in eating bird excrement. Its caterpillars feed on Virginia Creeper and grapes, both of which are available in abundance near the location where we set up the lights. The Black-bordered Lemon is another occasional visitor:

Black bordered lemon

This moth happily feeds on crabgrass as a caterpillar, so you find it in grassy areas. Not surprising that we find them at Prairie Ridge!

The Rosy Maple Moths are often the most gaudily colored moths we see during Moths At Night, and are generally popular with visitors. This year, however, we saw other large and/or colorful moths that were even more exciting! We had several Virginia Creeper Sphinx moths appear throughout the program and ended the evening with half a dozen at the lights:

Virginia creeper sphinx

This is the first time we’ve recorded Virginia Creeper Sphinx moths at Prairie Ridge, but they are relatively common. We also have quite a lot of Virginia Creeper, their caterpillar host plant, near the classroom building. Perhaps the poor weather in past years could explain why we haven’t spotted this moth before now?

The most exciting find of the night was spotted at the very end of the event, a Small-eyed Sphinx:

Small-eyed sphinx

This is another large moth species, and another first for Prairie Ridge. This species feeds on a variety of trees, including Black Cherry and Serviceberry. We have both species on the grounds, so although this was an exciting moth to see, it was definitely in a place where we might expect to see them.

By the end of the night, we’d documented over 40 moth species at Prairie Ridge! The data we collected (photos, date, location, and time) have been uploaded to our Natural North Carolina project so that we can share our moth sightings with scientists and other people who are interested in moths. Several visitors also took photos of moths at Prairie Ridge this year and were planning to share them with Natural North Carolina, so our moths should be well represented in this year’s National Moth Week dataset!

If you’d like to get involved in National Moth Week, there’s still time! The event runs through Sunday, July 31, so flip on your porch light tonight or tomorrow and make some observations of your nocturnal visitors. Simply looking at moths is great, but to make your observations more useful, consider snapping a few photos and sharing them online. We’d love for you to share your photos and observations with our Natural North Carolina project online at http://inaturalist.org/projects/natural-north-carolina. We hope to see some fabulous new moth observations there before National Moth Week is over!

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