In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
September, 2007
Regional Report

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A good time for moth-watching is an overcast night when they are drawn to artificial lights.

Winging It, Day and Night

Every couple of months I open the cottage door to find a house wren or chickadee flitting in the living room. They must come down the chimney through the wood stove flue. Each bird tries in vain to escape through windows that are painted shut. When I leave the door wide open, they eventually find their way out.

Except for one who was so curious, it followed me upstairs to my office. There it nibbled on the edges of binders and papers stuffed on the bookshelf while I typed and phoned.

Talk about unnerving YET fascinating! I left first, opening the front door and removing window screens to encourage the bird to take flight. The intrepid visitor was gone by evening. An amazing variety of wildlife finds haven in the woodlands trees, vines, and meadows.

Nocturnal Visitors
A diverse community of nocturnal fliers lives here, too, if a July evening with several Academy of Natural Science (ACS) staff and supporters is any indication. They gathered at dusk for "Moth Night at Hidden Hollow Farm" in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Their plan? To collect and identify moths and see what else flies into sight.

The moth lures gave pause. The bait trap was a cup of fermenting bananas, yeast, mango, and sugar dabbed on tree trunks. (Alcohol mellows them for easier catching.) The light traps consisted of white bed sheets illuminated by mercury-vapor lights or a black (fluorescent) light.

The tools were magnifying lenses, glass bottles, fast-killing ammonium carbonate, Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America, and three ACS cricket/butterfly, moth, and insect experts.

Moths use the moon to navigate, explained Jason Weintraub, ACS collections manager. Prime collection time is an overcast night with a new moon when moths are distracted and easily attracted to artificial light.

Most adult moths are night pollinators -- they fly and feast in the dark. Some seek scents; they're attracted to plants, rotting fruit, sap oozing from tree wounds, Weintraub said. Others gravitate to light. At night when they rest, they all spread out their wings rather than hold them upright like butterflies do. Moths feed mostly in the caterpillar stage, chewing the leaves of one particular type of plant, he added.

Plump, fuzzy adult moths do insert their tongues into flowers for nectar, though. While they feed, pollen inadvertently sticks to them. They transfer the microscopic grains from flower to flower -- from male stamens to female pistils. Hence, pollination leads to fertilization leads to seeds.

Weintraub predicted we'd see the common lesser yellow underwing moth (Noctua comes) with yellow-orange hindwings and brown camouflaged forewings. Other possibilities were the widow underwing and the pink-striped Ilia underwing.

The bright, mercury-lit bed sheet attracted quite an array: a small, brownish owlet moth; a wee swordtail cricket; a translucent green lacewing; cicadas; leafhoppers; cadisflies; brown marmorated stink bugs, and more. Most landed, were momentarily appreciated, then flew away. Next time you want to entertain friends young or mature, hang up a white sheet and shine a black light. Then marvel at the nocturnal diversity in your own backyard.


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