“The joy that…identifying moths can bring proves unbridled, instructive, and revelatory.” —James Lowen
What happens on the prairie after dark?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
We marvel at the Raspberry Pyrausta Moth.
The Delicate Cycnia moth elicits “oohs” and “aahs.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.