Tag Archives: Harnessed Tiger Moth

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.  

After Dark with Prairie Moths

“It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life.” –Virginia Woolf

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High winds. Rain. It’s 8:30 p.m., and we’re on the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie, prepping our first-ever moth survey.  I’ve seen the Schulenberg Prairie in spring and summer, under snow, and rippling in the autumn winds. I’ve walked it at dawn and dusk. But in more than two decades of hiking and almost as many years in helping care for this prairie as volunteer or steward, I’ve not seen it at night.

We — me and my team of prairie volunteers— are looking for moths. Are they here after dark? If so, which ones? Moths are important prairie species; they are pollinators as well as food for birds and bats. I vaguely know the moths that come to my porch light in the evenings. I admired the occasional Luna moth when I ventured into northern Michigan. I’ve even seen the Haploa moths during the day here, resting in the foliage.WMLeconte'sHaploa Moth (Haploa lecontei) 61419TrevorEdmonson SPMA.jpg

But most of the moths here are a mystery.

Fortunately, Trevor Edmonson, a restoration project manager at the Wetland’s Initiative, is here to mentor our group in the fine art of mothing. A passionate “moth-er,” he has generously brought his generator and power lights tonight, as well as his ID skills to help us. He sets up a large sheet on a quilt frame, under the cover of our Prairie Visitor Station roof. Open on all sides, it will protect the mercury vapor light and the black light, both which might be ruined if they get too wet. We rig another sheet over one of our interpretive signs. It’s not what we planned – we had hoped to be under open sky — but it’s the best “Plan B” we come up with in the evening’s weather. Trevor tells us what to expect.

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After a short talk, a few members of the team paint a mushy mixture of old beer, ripe banana, brown sugar, and molasses on posts. This “nectar,” my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths tells me, will attract moths who aren’t necessarily drawn to light.

Dark comes early because of the rain. Our ghostly sheets glare white in the lights. We drink hot coffee and snack on cookies, our chatter covering up  our disappointment over the rain blowing under the shelter where we’re clustered. All this planning. Will it come to nothing? The sheets ripple in the wind. It’s getting colder.

The first night insects land on the sheet. It’s something! We log them into our survey data, take a few photos. But where are the moths?

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Then. The first one lands. Isabella tiger moth Trevor calls out. We eagerly cluster around the sheet, oohing and ahhing.

WMIsabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) 61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg It’s the adult stage of the woolly bear caterpillar—something we see crossing prairie trails at other times of the year—and it is quickly followed by more of the same.

A team member shines her flashlight on the wooden posts. Look over here! More moths are landing on the sweet stink of the nectar bait.mothsurvey61419WM.jpg

The Isabella tiger moth opens the floodgates. Moths arrive faster than we can count them. Moths in the air! Moths on the posts! Moths landing on the sheets.

Black-Dotted Glyph!

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Moths land on the limestone pavers of the shelter. A Marbled-Green Leuconycta.

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“It looks like lichen,” says Karen, a volunteer, and yes, it does.

A collective sigh goes up from behind the largest sheet. A Harnessed Tiger Moth is wowing the group with its striking geometric patterns.

WMHarnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata) Trevor Edmonson61419SPMA.jpgNearby, an Orange Virbia moth lands on the pavers. Suddenly, we realize how many moths are literally under our feet. Navigating the area between the sheets is an exercise in patience and paying attention.

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One volunteer gently holds a Walnut Sphinx, perched delicately on his fingers. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen; its soft feathery wings almost like fur; its chunky body striped with white. Cameras flash; we’ve become the prairie paparazzi, all of us on fire with excitement for moths.

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Suddenly, Trevor yells “Cecrophia!” A moth larger than my hand hits the sheet, circles the light, then flaps off into the darkness. Come back! Come back! It’s an adrenaline rush, to see one of the giant silk moths here, tonight. So close! If only it would remain for a closer look. But it’s gone. We look at each other, awestruck. This. Is here!

We watch the moths, some hovering on the edges of the light, others landing on the limestone pavers and staying there for the evening. Others seem to fly in and out erratically; without rhyme or reason.

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Moths emit pheromones, I learned, when I read the novel Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver a few years back. Kingsolver uses moths as a framework for the story of a young insect researcher named Lusa, derailed by her husband’s accidental death. She suddenly  inherits his family’s farm. In her grief and confusion, she finds solace in moths. Lusa reminds herself:

The spiraling flights of moths appear haphazard only because of the mechanisms of olfactory tracking are so different from our own. Using binocular vision, we judge the location of an object by comparing the images from two eyes and tracking directly toward the stimulus. But for species relying on the sense of smell, the organism compares points in space, moves in the direction of the greater concentration, then compares two more points successively, moving in zigzags toward the source. Using olfactory navigation the moth detects currents of scent in the air and, by small increments, discovers how to move upstream.”

Most of us know the old saying, “drawn to it like a moth to a flame.” In Death of a Moth, Virginia Woolf seems to see in the moth’s demise through its attraction to a candle her own eventual tragic death.  At least two well-known nature writers were inspired by Woolf’s essay to pen their own reflections on moths: Robert Michael Pyle’s The Death of a Moth: Rejoinder to Virginia Woolf (1976) and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard’s 1976 essay, “The Death of the Moth.” 

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Three very different essays on moths. Woolf’s “little hay-colored moth;” a metaphor for the brevity of life. In Dillard’s essay, which eventually became part of her book, Holy the Firm, the moth attracted to her candle while she’s camping is caught in the flame and the fat in its body burns as part of the flame for several hours. For Dillard, the moth-as-flame becomes an illustration of what writing life will demand of someone truly committed to it.

WMFeather-edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis) SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpgRobert Michael Pyle writes about his observations and enjoyment of caring for a female Cecropia, which he captures and then observes for more than three weeks (a very long life for a moth of this species, which usually survives only a few days as an adult, as they are without mouths and only live to reproduce). His observation, unlike either Woolf’s or Dillards, is devoid of any metaphor. Instead, he acts as recorder and even matchmaker, bringing her males of the species to mate with, counting the number of eggs she lays, noting how her pheromones attract dozens of males which flock to the windows of his house after dark in search of her.

At the end of his essay, when the moth dies, he simply notes: “As I packed her away into a paper envelope and wrote on it the dry facts that said little about her, a nighthawk called outside the hotel window. It struck me that the hunting bird would enjoy my moth no more than I had done.”

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In three hours, Trevor photographs and identifies 49 species of moths. All this abundance, on an evening of cold, rain, and wind. We knew this prairie, said to be the fourth oldest planted prairie in the world, was special because of its rich diversity of unusual and high-quality native plants. But moths! Now we have a brief glimpse of the unknown treasures that are here after dark.

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One night. Three hours. 49 different kinds of moths. What other mysteries are out on the prairie, waiting to be discovered?

We’ll be on the prairie after dark again soon to find out.

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The opening quote is from Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), from The Death of a Moth and Other Essays. Woolf is best known for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) in which she wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, and took her life at age 59. Robert Michael Pyle, who wrote the essay quoted above in this blogpost, also wrote Silk Moth of the Railroad Yards (1975), in which he ponders the effects of mercury vapor streetlights on these insects. Both of Pyle’s essays can be found in his collection, Green Thoughts.

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All photos generously contributed by Trevor Edmonson to this week’s blog, except where noted, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL on June 14 (top to bottom): Leconte’s Haploa Moth (Haploa lecontei); Trevor talks to the survey team about moths, photo Cindy Crosby; waiting for moths to arrive, photo Cindy Crosby;  Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella); moth survey team working the sheets, photo by Cindy Crosby; Black-Dotted Glyph (Maliattha synochitis); Marbled-Green Leuconycta (Leuconycta lepidula); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); Orange Virbia Moth (Virbia aurantiaca); Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis); Pale Beauty Moth (Campaea parlata); Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopia grataria); Feather-Edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis); White-Dotted Prominent (Nadata gibbosa) American Idia Moth (Idia americalis).

Thanks to Trevor Edmonson for his mentoring of the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie team, and his generous gift of time and equipment. And thanks to our special guests Bronson, Vera, and Jeff who helped with identification. We’re grateful!