Rarely in nature do you see such a dichotomy of public opinion between animals of the same taxonomic order as there is between butterflies and moths. Both of these insects belong to the order Lepidoptera, but while butterflies are often used to signify beauty, tranquility, and safety, moths frequently find themselves being condemned and seen as omens of ill fortune. In popular culture, this division is further perpetuated as moths are prominently featured in horror or dramatic movies, while butterflies prevail in comedies and romantic films.
Want a landscape to appear desolate? Add a few moths swarming a flickering streetlight. Want to confirm that old, creepy house is abandoned? Send a moth or two fluttering out of an old wardrobe. Need a quick jump scare? Have a big moth suddenly emerge from the darkness and get caught in the lead actress’ hair.
Regrettably, moths’ own life history works against them in this regard. Those Hollywood tricks wouldn’t be as useful were it not for the simple fact that most moths are active after sunset. After all, it’s more difficult to build suspense on a clear, sunny day with bluebird skies than it is on an overcast, starless night.
National Moth Week, however, is trying to change this perception and encourage people to stay up late and take a closer look at the beauty and diversity our nocturnal moths truly have to offer. In the state of Ohio, there have been around 140 different butterfly species documented. Moths, on the other hand, are represented by over 3,000 species in the Buckeye State! Unfortunately, in addition to their after-dusk flight times, many moths lack the colorful wing and body patterns that are characteristic of butterflies and, instead, come in muted shades of grays and browns.
There are exceptions to this rule, most notably in the giant and royal silkworm moths that include species such as the Luna, Cecropia, Rosy Maple, and Regal Moths. A few others in the sphinx and tiger moth families are also quite dazzling in color, but these make up only a small percentage of observed species and individuals. Collecting around a lit porchlight or even setting a moth “trap” using an old bedsheet and blacklight will, instead, likely lead to the capture of many small, less gaudy specimens. But even these relatively nondescript moths may harbor a subjective beauty upon closer inspection.
National Moth Week hopes to, not only break the stigma of public opinion on moths, but also to engage citizen scientists and motivate people to conduct their own nighttime surveys of moth species around their home or local area and recording their sightings using online tools such as iNaturalist, Project Noah, or BugGuide.
If you don’t mind staying up a little past the traditional bedtime and want to give this interesting group of insects a closer look, I encourage you to leave on a couple of exterior lights or even set up a blacklight display in your yard. You might be surprised by what comes to visit.
Tommy Springer is the wildlife and education specialist for the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at 740-653-8154 or at [email protected]