“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
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.
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.
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?
Then. The first one lands. Isabella tiger moth Trevor calls out. We eagerly cluster around the sheet, oohing and ahhing.
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.
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.
Moths land on the limestone pavers of the shelter. A Marbled-Green Leuconycta.
“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.
Nearby, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Robert 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!