Backyard Prairie Mothapalooza

“The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” — Vincent Van Gogh

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Sunshine, thunderstorms, and wind. The heat index tips over 100 one day, then temperatures drop into the 60s the next.

The tallgrass prairie doesn’t blink. It adapts. Then adapts again. The prairie was made for these wild swings of weather.

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By day, the prairie explodes with blooms. July is its zenith for wildflowers.

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So many interesting flowers to see on a hike through the tallgrass!

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So many interesting creatures in my backyard prairie.

SilverSkipperwithbeebalmWMGEbackyard72520And that’s just in the daytime.

Just think of what goes on…after dark.

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Last week was National Moth Week, In the spirit of celebration, Jeff and I put on a “mothapalooza” near our backyard prairie patch. I knew, as a prairie steward, that moths depend on specific associated plants for their caterpillars to survive and thrive. Would the native (and non-native) plants in my backyard be enough of a draw to nurture a thriving moth population?

I didn’t know what moths were nearby, beyond the occasional gray-ish ones that banged away at our front porch light and a sighting of a Beautiful Wood Nymph last summer which stuck around by the front door for a few days. Armed with a Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths, we were about to find out.

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As I read up on moths, I learned there were between 150,000 to 500,000 different species in the world. New moths are discovered all the time. While most are creatures of the night, some fly during the daytime. That made sense. I see the snowberry clearwing moths nectar at the Schulenberg Prairie’s  bee balm blooms….snowberryclearwingWM hummingbird sphinx moth SPMA71419.jpg

…and the hummingbird moths nectar at my native bee balm —- and not-so-native hanging basket of petunias.

But after dark….that was a mystery. Other than a few moths I had seen on my nocturnal front porch visits,  what else might I discover? it was time to find out.

Two of our grandkids, age 4 and 7, were spending the night with us this weekend. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce them to moths. First we built a moth trap. There are many good instructions for inexpensive moth traps online; we adapted one from this video by a precocious young British kid — check it out. After watching it, we were able to pull a moth trap together mostly from odds and ends I had in the garage, and some donated egg cartons from our friend, Hinsdale Prairie Steward Kath Thomas. The egg cartons are stacked inside the bucket for the moths to rest in, like rows of tiny cubicles.

The whole effect is not pretty, but as it turned out, it was functional. It is also catch and release, so the moths can return to the backyard in the morning.

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We also painted a board with moth bait, a stinky concoction of brown sugar, stale beer, and bananas. Some moths, it seems, like this better than lights.

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The UV light was the most expensive part of the set-up, and was a birthday gift from Jeff ordered from Bioquip, where I get my dragonfly supplies. (Thanks, Jeff!) We decided to combine the moth trap and baited board with a moth sheet that we hung on the porch.

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Waiting for dark was made a little easier by setting up our backpacking tent and reading stories to the little ones.

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Then, about the time the fireflies lit up, we began seeing moths.

Small ones, like this Orange Wing moth.MothNightWMorangewing72520GEBackyard

Beautifully colored ones, like this Woody Underwing.

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Seriously cute ones, such as this Giant Eucosma. Its host plant is cupplant. Our prairie patch has plenty of it!

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From time to time, we’d leave the backyard and check the front porch to see what had shown up under the porch light. Most of our photos were taken with my cell phone. Even so, you can see how beautiful this little Venerable Dart moth was. Those fuzzy antennae! Those beautiful wings. We looked in the field guide and saw its host plants include chickweed and tomato plants. Yup! We have both.

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Most moths show up a little later than bedtime for little ones. They didn’t last past 10 p.m. After tucking them in, I kept things going outside until about 1 a.m., when I finally left the moth trap to work its magic and went to bed.

In the morning, still in our PJs, we rushed out to check the trap. Not a lot in there; mostly very tiny moths and a lot of night insects. I can see our moth trap is going to need some work. But one find at the bottom of the trap that wowed the grandkids: a Harnessed Tiger Moth, nestled into one of the cups of an egg carton.

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I’ve seen tiger moths on the prairies, but never in my backyard! I read in my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths that this species depends on dandelions and clover as host plants for its larvae–or caterpillars. Another reason to not treat our yard with chemicals.

The four of us gently lifted the egg carton out of the bucket and watched as it flew into the gray-headed coneflowers.BackyardGE72520WMgrayheadedconeflowerliatris.jpg

Moth identification is tricky; I’m learning a lot from the Moths of the Eastern United States Facebook Page and my field guide. Buguide.net is also a terrific resource, and iNaturalist, a free app for my phone, did a lot of legwork getting my moths identified—at least to genus. But like learning dragonflies or damselflies or any insect, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

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Such an exciting adventure—the realization that a lifetime will not be  long enough to discover all there is about moths.

Each moth needs a particular plant or several specific plant species in order to survive. Every time I choose to put a host plant in my garden for moths—or leave a “weed” that they depend on for survival like clover or dandelions—I increase the chances of a more healthy and diverse moth population in my little corner of the world.BlackeyedSusanHinsdalePrairieWM72520.jpg

The night is full of amazing creatures. Now, I’ve met a few more of them. Just think of what you might find in your backyard prairie patch or your favorite prairie….after dark.

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Artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) whose quote opens today’s blog is considered one of the  most influential painters of all time. His paintings have commanded some of the highest prices at auction in the world, and his painting, “Starry Starry Night” inspired a song by musician Don McLean. Listen to it here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in Cindy’s backyard, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Hinsdale Prairie remant, Hinsdale, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus); Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) with non-native petunias (Petunia sp.); homemade moth trap; moth board with painted stinky bait; sheet moth lighting for mothapalooza; REI half-dome tent; Orange Wing moth (Mellilla xanthometata); Woody Underwing moth (Catocala grynea); Giant Eucosma moth (Eucosma gigantica); Venerable Dart moth (Agrotis venerabilis); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); blazing star (Liatris sp.) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium); black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Thanks to Trevor Dean Edmonson who is my moth mentor! Any moth mis-identifications will be happily corrected; I am a rank beginner with moths, and delighted to learn whatever I can.

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Join Cindy for an online class!

Last call for “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through the end of July. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

6 responses to “Backyard Prairie Mothapalooza

  1. Welcome to the world of moths, Cindy! Last July I attended a weekend event called Mothapalooza in southern Ohio, and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. There were at least a dozen different light stations set up throughout the woods, where many thousands of moths congregated each night. They landed on the sheets as well as on our faces and feet. The beauty of some of these moths is jaw-dropping.

    Another fun night activity is to look for caterpillars with a black light. Last year I went out a few times at night with some friends and we found amazing caterpillars. When I do these nighttime nature explorations, I feel like I’ve got to run out and tell the rest of the world what they’re missing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How lovely to hear about your experiences, Kim! I like the idea of looking for caterpillars. How fun! Thank you for touching base and reading. Hope you are enjoying the summer! For those of you reading, Kim’s work chasing dragonflies is chronicled in my new book, “Chasing Dragonflies,” and Kim is a wonderful blogger (“Nature is My Therapy”) and dragonfly chaser out in Ohio. Check out her experiences in her blog and in the book.-Cindy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kathleen Stupich

    Hi Cindy! I’m so glad you do these posts; I’ve enjoyed each and every one since I signed up – the quotes, the photos, and your words. (And now I’m enjoying Andrew Hipp’s as well, thx to you!) They’ve become even more important during these challenging times. Moths are fascinating creatures, so this one is particularly interesting! Not a group that gets as much public exposure as our plants, birds, and butterflies. I also really like the quote from Van Gogh – what an interesting perspective! At first I thought “what?????”, and then I thought “ahhh…..wait, this needs to be explored!” The “richly colored” part is great food for thought, and I’ll keep this quote in mind when I’m outside at night. It’s lovely to think about the night in this different way, from this artist’s point of view…..please stay safe and healthy, and thx again for brightening my days! Kathy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, and thank you so much for reading and taking time to leave me a note. I’m grateful that you follow the blog, and also that you checked out Andrew’s! He’s an amazing writer, isn’t he? Moths are such fascinating creatures; a whole world to explore. I love that I can step onto my front porch and see them every night! A good activity for a time when we can’t always be away from home. So delighted you are enjoying Tuesdays in the Tallgrass — take care and stay well, Kathleen!– Cindy 🙂

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