A Prairie Mothapalooza

“The joy that…identifying moths can bring proves unbridled, instructive, and revelatory.” —James Lowen

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What happens on the prairie after dark?

Learning about moths with Trevor Edmonson on the Schulenberg Prairie (2019).

More than you might think.

This past week, a small contingent of my prairie volunteer group continued our quest to learn what species of moths live and fly on the prairie. Since 2019, we’ve explored the exciting world of prairie moths by putting up a few sheets, hanging a mercury vapor light and a black light, and seeing what shows up. None of us are trained in moth ID, but thanks to iNaturalist , an app we use on our phones that helps with identification, we’re making progress. We’re not experts—nope, not by a long shot—but we are learning.

Using field guides like this one has been invaluable.

Peterson Field Guide to Moths.

But moths aren’t an easy species to understand. That said… .

We’ve learned that some moths can be found in the daytime—if you look closely in the tallgrass.

Possibly the Harness Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We’ve found there are 160,000 or more moth species in the world. That’s about 10 times as many moths species as there are butterfly species. The United States alone has around 11,000 species of Moths. Wow!

Haploa Moth (Haploa sp.) caterpillar, Belmont Prairie, IL (May 2022).

We’re learning that many moths have specific plant hosts. One of our rarest moths, Dichagryis reliqua “The Relic” has turned up every year since we began monitoring. Why? It uses prairie dropseed as its host plant —and we have it, in abundance.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2016).

It’s impossible not to marvel at these diverse flying insects. They pollinate some of our favorite plants, and they are an important source of food for many birds, bats, and insects. Plus—look how pretty they are! We cheer when we see the pink streak moth.

Pink Streak Moth (Dargida rubripennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We marvel at the Raspberry Pyrausta Moth.

Raspberry Pyrausta moth (Pyrausta signatalis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The Delicate Cycnia moth elicits “oohs” and “aahs.”

Delicate Cycnia Moth (Cycnia tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And we puzzle over identifying many, many more we see. Moth identification isn’t easy! There’s so much to discover about moths.

And there is so much to learn about prairie, and how our management affects the creatures who depend on certain prairie plants. So far, we’ve identified about 130 moth species on our 100 acres. One of our prairie artists captured some of them on this beautiful mug.

Moths of the June Schulenberg Prairie” mug by Karen Johnson at Karen’s Nature Art.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s flying in the tallgrass and savanna. There are 1,850 moth species in Illinois. Can you imagine what else we’ll see in the future, after dark? All we have to do is show up and pay attention. A sense of curiosity about the natural world will take you a long way.

Leconte’s Haploa Moth (Haploa lecontei), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (June 2022)

There’s much we still don’t comprehend. But we do know this: The hours we spend learning about our prairie moths? It’s time well spent.

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James Lowen, whose quote about moths kicks off today’s post, is the author of Much Ado About Mothing: A Year Intoxicated By Britain’s Rare And Remarkable Moths, a fascinating and detailed look at a Moth Big Year in Great Britain.

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Join Cindy for a Program in August!

West Cook Wild Ones presents: A Brief History of Trees in America with Cindy on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public. Join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.

16 responses to “A Prairie Mothapalooza

  1. Love this post that encourages people to be curious about moths! And thanks for including my mug!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Karen —It’s a beautiful mug! Thank you for your good work sharing moths through your art (and your identification skills!). Looking forward to having you at our next moth night. —Cindy 🙂

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  2. After 30 years of geraniums in my garden (because the rabbit doesn’t eat them), 2 years ago budworms appeared – and decimated all blooms. I finally figured out these moths are the problem, so unfortunately have a spray now that seems to eradicate them. I’m all for encouraging pollinators, but please let me have my flowers! 😌

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What delicate beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such handsome critters!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susan, it just astonishes me that there is so much diversity and beauty on one small prairie. Thank you for reading, and for all you do to keep the Schulenberg Prairie healthy and thriving! Cindy 🙂

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  5. Thanks for covering the beautiful moths. I used to see so many of them around porch lights at night, but not so much anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeff –I hope as more of us learn about these incredible creatures we’ll also find ways to ensure we don’t lose them. Thanks for the work you do to keep the world a healthier place! Cindy 🙂

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  6. Love this post, Cindy! I love moths just as much as butterflies– possibly even more than butterflies! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yay for mothing! I was lucky to be invited to a small mothing event a couple weeks ago and had such a blast. Moth nights are such a cool way to experience a part of nature that most people never even think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful post! Great pictures. Thanks for including a resource for beginners to learn more as well. So interesting the connections between plants and moths, as illustrated by the relic moth. Maybe someday mothapsloozas will happen regularly all over the region.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Eileen — Thank you so much for reading! I still have a lot to learn about night photography — the moths are so beautiful, I never feel my photos do them justice. I think mothapaloozas are catching on! Thank you for all you do for the natural world. Cindy 🙂

      Like

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