My Blacklighting Rig

Imagine this.  You and some buddies pack a bunch of stuff into a truck or SUV or Subaru and head off into the wild for the night.  You carry with you some snacks, perhaps an adult beverage or two, a headlamp (because it’s going to be dark out there!), and some gear.  When you arrive at some place that’s truly out in the middle of nowhere, you set up some sort of frame, drape a white sheet over it, and shine some lights on it.  Then you wait.  You spend the next several hours drinking your adult beverages, lounging in camp chairs, and exclaiming with glee that “Citheronia splendans” or some other spectacular insect just showed up on the sheet.  Woo!  Some people sit and talk, others stalk the sheets obsessively with collecting jars or glassine envelopes, and still others collect photographs only.  Maybe you stay overnight, or maybe you pack up about 2am and drive back to town.  Either way, you’ve just experienced a beloved pastime/collecting technique of entomologists everywhere: blacklighting.

I love blacklighting!  I was hooked on it from my very first blacklighting trip.  You’ll see things at lights at night that you might never see anywhere else.  But, lugging a bunch of lights and associated equipment into the field is a pain.  After observing dozens of rigs utilized by a variety of entomologists and blacklighting extensively myself, I set out to design a portable, collapsible blacklighting rig that didn’t require a generator (those things are heavy and often very loud) and I could set up and break down within a few minutes.  Today I’m going to share what I came up with.

First, let’s talk about surfaces.  Blacklighting rigs usually have some sort of white surface on which you shine your lights.  That surfaces reflects the light and glows, but it also gives the insects something to hold onto when they arrive.  Most entomologists I know rely on white bedsheets.  I buy mine from Goodwill because you can walk out with a big pile of sheets for less than the price of a single new one.  A hot wash with bleach and you’ve got a cheap, clean sheet to use for your rig! My favorite sheet cost $3.

Once you’ve got some sort of white surface to project your lights onto, you need a frame to hold it upright.  Now if you live in a place that has a lot of trees, you can get away with simply using a rope and a handful of strong clothespins or binder clips: tie the rope between the trees, clip the sheet to the line, and use rocks or tent stakes to pin the bottom down.  I started blacklighting in Arizona, however, and trees are too far apart to make that work.  I currently work at a prairie field station and have similar issues if I want to blacklight anywhere outside the forested area.  There are some great collapsible, freestanding blacklighting rigs available through companies like Bioquip that you can fold up and carry in a backpack.  They are shockingly (and I think unnecessarily) expensive – I refuse to buy a $150+ blacklighting sheet!  You can make your own rig with a similar design with a few king sized white sheets, though you need to have some sewing skills and some cannibalized tent poles from an old dome tent to make one.  I’ll be honest: I made one like that and I wasn’t ever happy with it (too short, too small), so I decided to come up with something else.  I eventually built my current rig out of PVC pipes:

Blacklight rig with UV

This rig required three 10 foot pipes (I used 2 inch diameter pipes, though I’m going with 1 inch next time), two elbow connectors, two t connectors, four threaded end connectors, and four threaded caps to fit inside the end connectors, the latter two only so I wouldn’t get dirt and/or water in the pipes that sit against the ground.  For my bases, I cut four short pipe sections of equal length (about 2.5 feet) and used PVC joint compound to fix two of them permanently into the ends of each t connector, then glued the end connectors onto the opposite ends and screwed in the caps.  I glued the two elbow connectors to the ends of the pipe that was going to run across the top, and voila: my stand was ready!  When I want to set my blacklight frame up, all I have to do is thread my sheet over the horizontal top pipe, push one end of the upright pipes into the t connectors, push the other into the elbow joints on the top pipe, and the frame’s in place!  I cut a little hole in the center of my sheet and wrap a nylon cord around the top pipe a couple of times and stake the ends into the ground on either side of the frame to keep it from blowing over in the wind.  I don’t have a photo of the sheet I currently use with this frame, but I trimmed the width to match the frame, added a few grommets along the sides, and use small pieces of nylon cord or tiny bungee cords to attach the sheet to the vertical pipes and keep it taut.  The whole thing takes just a few minutes to set up, and I can easily carry my little bunch of 5 pipes and the sheet with a velcro strap/handle I got at a hardware store.  The frame cost about $20 altogether, including the joint compound.  That means my whole frame with the sheet cost less than $25 – a WHOLE lot cheaper than the $150+ portable models!

Now let’s talk lights!  I experimented with a lot of lights and I alternate between two styles.  If I’m close to a building and have access to power (e.g., in my backyard), I use a CFL blacklight bulb (they’re about $7) and a clamp style lamp with a aluminum reflector that I hang from a shepherd’s crook and plug into an outlet:

Blacklight rig with CFL

In more remote areas, I usually use a portable jump starter as my power source and plug in a DC powered blacklight bulb from Bioquip, which is what you see in the image at the top.  I can get a good 8 hours of run time from a single charge of the jump starter, which I think is pretty good given the ease of using it and minimal weight.  Sometimes I’ll get a little more fancy in the field and use two of the clamp lamps, each with a CFL blacklight bulb, plug them into a multi-socket extension cord, and plug that into my portable jump starter via a power inverter.  It requires a little more gear, so more to carry, and the jump starter battery doesn’t last quite as long, but you can get some really excellent light for about half a night that way.

A lot of people who blacklight to collect things for research favor mercury vapor lights, but I do not have one.  They’re painfully bright for me, can’t get wet (they tend to explode when cool water hits the massively hot glass!), are a burn and fire risk, and they use more power.  If I ever decide to take a mercury vapor light into the field with me, I will break down and buy a real generator, but it certainly won’t be as portable as my current rig.

The things I like most about my rig are that I can carry the pipes in one hand, the jump starter in the other, and the rest in a backpack and walk a pretty good ways with everything, so it’s very portable.  The lights stay on a long time because they draw a very small amount of power, whether I use the CFLs or the UV light, and that’s great.  I get a pretty good diversity of insects coming to this rig, regardless of where I’ve set it up, so I know it is reasonably attractive to a lot of night active insects.  I can set this baby up anywhere – it’s free standing and battery powered.  The main downside is that it’s not sturdy enough to withstand high winds and blows over if the winds pick up.  Of course, you don’t get a whole lot of insects on very windy nights anyway, so I think it’s a small price to pay to have a lightweight, portable rig I can easily chuck in my car and take with me anywhere I want to go.

There are endless variations on blacklighting rigs and setups, so this might not be the best solution for everyone, but it works for me.  Anyone want to share some alternative setups so that we can all learn from each other and steal each other’s ideas?  I’d love to see/hear about what other people are using to attract insects at night – leave ideas in the comments!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Five Bad Photos of California’s Winter Invertebrates (Friday 5 – on Saturday)

Whew! It’s been a really busy few weeks! I recently received a grant to start up a citizen science after school program (which you’ll hear all about at some point – it involves bugs!!) and have poured almost every moment of my work time into that since the beginning of February. Then, right in the middle of that chaos, I attended the first ever conference for the Citizen Science Association. That took me to San Jose, CA last week! One conference activity that I really wanted to do and couldn’t was a bioblitz of downtown San Jose. If you don’t know what a bioblitz is, it’s a comprehensive biodiversity survey of an area, typically done over a short (or at least limited) time frame. People participating in the San Jose bioblitz were encouraged to photograph any species they saw and upload their sightings to iNaturalist, my favorite wildlife sighting website/app, throughout the meeting. I lead biodiversity survey programs that use iNaturalist all the time and I very much wanted to see what the people who oversee iNaturalist do when they lead programs, but I unfortunately needed to be somewhere else during the organized part of the event. However, the moment I had a few minutes free, I dashed outside with my superzoom camera to add some of my own sightings to the survey! Because it was California, it was lovely and warm and there were actually insects out in the middle of winter. I still haven’t worked out how to use my superzoom to take decent macro shots (I remain unconvinced this is even possible with my particular model…), but here are my five favorite invertebrates I saw in downtown San Jose!

Hover Fly

Hoverfly 1

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get anything close to a focused shot of the many hover flies buzzing around the area, but this one’s not too bad, if a little far away… I honestly have no idea what type of hover flies these were (Toxomerus perhaps?), but I was thrilled to see them. Dozens of hover flies flying around in mid-February! Don’t think I’d realized how much I missed that sort of thing until I found myself standing on sidewalk in downtown San Jose grinning like a fool and pointing excitedly at hover flies. I would bet several passersby thought I was totally nuts, but whatever. I was just so happy to see insects in winter again!

Another Hover Fly

Hoverfly 1

Found this beauty sucking on a rosemary flower! I mistook it for a bee from a distance (how embarrassing!), but was very pleased to see it was really a hover fly when I got close. The spectacularly speckled eyes make me think this might be something in the hover fly genus Eristalinus (which would probably also make it non-native), but if you couldn’t tell from the previous insect, these are well out of my identification skill wheelhouse. Whatever it is, it’s crazy pretty if you get a good look at it! Makes me feel a little sorry for all those people out there in the world who don’t even know something like this exists.

Garden Snail

Garden Snail

I found dozens of these huge snails in a planter outside an office building and was instantly struck by their beautiful form. One of the nice things about iNaturalist is that you can ask other iNat users for identification help. It’s no BugGuide for insects and other invertebrates, but a lot of people came up with the same ID for this one and I think they’re probably right: garden snail, Helix aspersa. Though we do have a lot of snails in North Carolina, these snails were quite large and were a surprise in the dry environment.  They are non-native and considered a pest in California, though these are also one of the snails that end up in escargot in Europe, so apparently edible!

Aquatic Worm

Aquatic worm

Confession time: I have embarrassed many companions by squealing happily when I come across standing water and crouching down beside puddles to poke around for invertebrates. I found this little worm and about a dozen more just like it in a tiny puddle, just 1/4 inch deep, that had formed in a depression at the top of a light fixture in a park. Seriously, people must think I’m nuts… I was wearing a nice skirt, nice shoes, and a nice shirt with my hair pulled back in a tight bun – all business-like – when I yelled “Oooh! Water!!!” to no one in particular and plunged my hands into a random puddle. If you’re ever out in public with me, be warned that I might do the same thing to you. I have zero shame!

Isopod

Hoverfly 1

Who doesn’t love a good roly poly? This one didn’t roll up when I picked it up (sad!), but I thought its brown pattern was especially lovely for an isopod. These little guys are land-dwelling crustaceans, the lobster of the land! I love that there are little land crustaceans running around all over the place. If I can trust the iNaturalist users, this lovely brown one is the same species as the horde of more standard grey ones I found with it. Was hoping I had two species, but apparently I just found a weird one instead.

I absolutely loved getting out and looking for bugs in San Jose! I didn’t find all that many species, about 15 invertebrates in all, but that’s certainly more than I’ve seen in Raleigh for a while. I was also thrilled to discover that I was hot in the February sun! That happiness was short-lived however. After 11.5 hours and three flights back home, I stepped off the plane in flip-flops and shorts into 25 degree weather. It started snowing/sleeting a few days later and some schools have been closed ALL WEEK because of it! Nothing like being snapped back into reality the moment you get home…

For those of you that live in places that aren’t buried in snow or covered in a massive sheet of ice, what’s the best invertebrate you’ve seen recently? I want to live vicariously through you – I miss warm winters!!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Water Bug (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

I have a giant water bug for you all this week!

Lethocerus uhleri

Lethocerus uhleri

That’s a Lethocerus uhleri nymph, a very large giant water bug common in North Carolina.  This particular individual was only an inch long when I scooped it out of the pond at work, but it was still a baby.  They get quite a bit larger before becoming adults!  I like the way that they looked wholly menacing, even as young’ins.  :)

It’s been cold in Raleigh recently (it’s supposed to dip below zero tomorrow!), so I’m missing my aquatics.  Stay warm, everyone!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

More Insect Haikus (Friday 5)

The insect activity was a bit sparse this week, in spite of some lovely warm days and some exciting things that happened.  Because there are so few insects to report, I’m going to share some haikus of recent insect and insect-related observations I’ve made over the past few weeks.  Hope you enjoy them!

Ode to the Fall Cankerworm

Female cankerworm

Wingless cankerworm
crawling up a maple tree,
lays her eggs while cold.

If you’ve followed my blog recently, you’ve already read about the fall cankerworms I’ve watched recently.  They disappeared from their usual spot for a couple of weeks during some very cold weather and an ice storm, but they’ve come back!  I was more excited about that than I probably should have been…

Burning the Prairie

Prairie burn

Snap crackle and pop,
winter prairie fire burns, 
insects flee the flames.

The natural resources guy at the field station leads a controlled burn of a third of the prairie every winter as part of the prairie maintenance, and it took place yesterday.  It’s always exciting to watch, but for the first time I noticed a lot of insects out and about near the burn area, some of which had clearly been roaming around in the ashes.  Made me think that the rabbits, cotton rats, and mice aren’t the only things that flee as the fire advances!  Interesting to see so many insects roaming around after the burn.

Stuff of Insect Nightmares

Brown headed nuthatch

Tap tap tap it goes,
the nuthatch looks for a treat,
insect under bark.

I’ve fallen in love with brown-headed nuthatches recently!  They’re adorable and it’s fun to watch them breaking off pieces of bark to get to the tasty insects hidden underneath.  They’re rather resourceful little birds!

Wasps in Winter

Wasp nest

Huge paper wasp nest,
high up in a winter tree.
Glad it’s cold today!

I got to go on a fantastically fun trip with a bunch of other environmental educators to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last weekend.  It’s an overwintering site for tens of thousands of tundra swans, snow geese, and red-winged blackbirds, and you can see flocks of 30,000-40,000 birds.  It’s absolutely and indescribably amazing!  But, I got excited about a few insect sightings as well.  I’m going to write about one of them in a longer blog post sometime soon, but one of the other women on the trip noticed the awesome wasp in the photo high in a tree.  It was truly massive, so I think both of us were actually just fine with being cold at that moment as it meant we weren’t going to be inundated by angry wasps while we milled around under their beautiful nest.

The Birds

Red winged blackbirds

The red-winged blackbirds
flying over winter fields
look like clouds of gnats.

I couldn’t resist throwing in this haiku about the red-winged blackbirds, even though it just alludes to insects.  There were just SO many of them at Pungo!  If any of you ever make it out to eastern North Carolina in the winter, it’s well worth a visit to Pungo or nearby Lake Mattamuskeet to see the birds.  The photo doesn’t give you a good sense of what it feels like to have several thousand birds swirling around in a huge mass in front of you only to have the entire flock fly right over your head only 10 feet above you.  It was like a black wall that was about to engulf you, but it swerved upward at the last moment and disappeared over the trees.  It was magical!

It’s winter, but there’s always great stuff to see outside and I’ve really been enjoying exploring recently.  Anyone want to take a stab at a winter themed haiku?  Pick any topic of your choice, so long as it focuses on winter.  Would love to read anything you come up with, so leave poems in the comments!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Beetles at Blacklights (Friday 5)

Last summer I spent almost an entire month blacklighting in my backyard every night.  I’m going to share my blacklighting setup with you all in the not too distant future so you can see what it involves, but I turned on my lights just before it got dark and then went out multiple times each night to document the things I found.  I focused on moths as I was participating in National Moth Week at first, but I saw a bunch of other really cool things too.  Though I have no interest at all in studying beetles (except maybe how various aquatic beetles breathe), I have always rather enjoyed looking at them.  I got some really great ones coming to my lights too!  Today I’m going to share 5 of my favorite beetles from my blacklighting adventure last summer.

A note about my identifications: I’m not 100% certain about any of the IDs I propose for these beetles!  I bought Art Evans’ wonderful book Beetles of Eastern North America, which anyone who has an interest in insects and lives in the eastern US should own, just before I started my month of blacklighting.  I used it for most of my identifications and though it is a remarkably comprehensive field guide that covers 1406 species, beetles are incredibly diverse and the book certainly doesn’t cover all of the species found in the eastern US.  It’s entirely possible (maybe even likely) I have some of these wrong – I welcome corrections if you see a mistake!

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

Stenolophus lecontei

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

This gorgeous little fellow is found throughout most of the eastern US and is known to come to lights at night.  They’re active from spring into late summer and belong to the ground beetle family Carabidae.  They’re common in fields, gardens, and suburban yards where they feed on live and dead insects and the occasional fruit, seed, or plant.

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

This little pond dwelling predaceous diving beetle is found throughout the southeastern US as well as the Bahamas and Cuba.  It is surprisingly hard to find information about this particular species, but I would suspect that they are predatory like most of their relatives in the family Dytiscidae and feed on other insects in ponds.  You can tell this one is a male because he’s got suction cups on his front feet.

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

I was thrilled when this gorgeous longhorn beetle from the family Cerambycidae showed up at my porch light!  It was pretty high up and I didn’t get a good shot of it before I bumped it and it flew away, but wow!  What a spectacular beetle!  These beetles are common throughout the southeastern US and range into New England and are frequently seen at lights in spring and summer.  They feed on oaks and sumacs as larvae.

Long-necked Ground Beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

 

Cosnania pensylvanica

Long-necked ground beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

This is a very interestingly shaped member of the ground beetle family Carabidae, with its long, extended prothorax separating its head from the rest of its body.  These are found in the southeastern US and into New England and are common in open grassy areas (like my backyard, for example), on plants along the edges of wetlands, or under piles of debris.  They’re most common in the spring and summer and are known to be attracted to lights.  They are thought to be ant mimics and are suspected to feed on aphids.

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

Ataenius spretulus

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

During my month of blacklighting, I learned that these small, black beetles are far and away the most common thing I find at lights at night in my yard.  There were sometimes hundreds of them!  They belong to the scarab beetle family Scarabaeidae and are active most of the year throughout large parts of the US and into Ontario in Canada.  They are definitely attracted to lights!  They are also a turfgrass pest, which made me worry a bit for my yard.  Not that our grass is perfect anyway (it’s more a collection of neatly trimmed weeds than grass), but there were SO many of these that I was surprised I had any grass left at all!

Apart from this tiny handful of beetles that came to my lights, I found awesome click beetles and loads of aquatic beetles.  There were several scarab species, some of which were very numerous, and some wonderful long-horned and wood-boring beetles.  Some of the beetles had crazy antennae and others were comparatively uninteresting.  My very favorite beetle didn’t stick around long for me to photograph it, a click beetle with absolutely wild antennae!  The experience reminded me, as nature so often does, that there are seemingly endless beetle species in the world of countless colors, sizes, and shapes.  Makes me excited to see what I will find when I start blacklighting again this spring!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery Takes a Somewhat Sinister Turn!

After writing about the moths that congregate at the light on the trailer where I work, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried to identify the moths that I was seeing.  I turned to the best moth ID resource I know of (at least if you have photos): Facebook!  The Facebook group “Moths of the eastern United States” includes several expert moth identifiers and I’ve never had to wait for more than a few minutes to get an answer to my moth queries.  So, I posted my moth photo on the group page, and voila!  A few minutes later I had and ID for my moth: male fall cankerworm.  Hmm…  That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I was a little disappointed, at least at first.

If you’re not familiar with fall cankerworms, allow me to enlighten you!  They’re native to the eastern US, but they are considered pests of elms, ashes, and maples (as well as several other trees) and are known to periodically defoliate large stands of trees.  In certain parts of the country, they cause huge problems.  In my own state, North Carolina, the population in the Charlotte area has been particularly problematic and a state approved aerial application of Bt pesticides has been put into effect in the area.  Bt is derived from a biological source, the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and rather specifically targets caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  By using Bt during the early spring when pretty much only the caterpillars of the fall cankerworm are active, cities or forest managers can target the cankerworm caterpillars without harming most of the other species in the area.

So my little moths are a pest species!  I was hoping they were some sort of amazingly well adapted winter moths with a really interesting life history.  And they are!  Fall cankerworms might be pests, but they’re very interesting pests, so they’re still terribly exciting.

The image I posted recently of the moths at the lights was this:

Moth

Male fall cankerworm

That is a male.  How do I know?  Because the females look like this:

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworms are wingless and quite a bit smaller than the males, so they look completely different.  In fact, if you look on BugGuide.net at the images of female fall cankerworms, you’ll see that a lot of people who submitted photos of them had no idea what they were.  The females still have scales, which implies they’re a butterfly or moth, but the lack of wings really throws people.  I’ll admit that when I found the female in the image above when I went into work yesterday, I thought it was a leafhopper for a moment – and I had even read up on cankerworms the day before!  It’s really not obvious they’re moths on first glance.

Both male and female cankerworms are active in the late fall and early winter, which explains why I’ve been seeing so many of them recently.  The females climb way up into the trees to lay their eggs.  Presumably the adults die at some point in the winter, then the eggs hatch in early spring.  The adults are one of the last insect species active in the winter and the caterpillars are one of the first species to show up in the spring, so they apparently specialize on tolerating cooler weather.  The caterpillars are standard inchworm type caterpillars and feed on tree leaves.  They can cause some significant damage to the year’s early leaf crop, though rarely kill the trees they feed on.  They eventually lower themselves down onto the ground via a silken thread (I often see inchworms dangling from silk on trees here in the spring – now I’ll be looking to see if they’re cankerworms!), then pupate for several months in the soil.  The new adults emerge in the fall and the whole process starts over!

What this all means is that my boring looking little gray moths are actually pretty interesting.  You’re most likely to see them (as adults or caterpillars) in the colder months, which is strange for an insect.  Wingless female moths are always cool too!  And the fact that they’re a native pest species means that I probably don’t have to worry too much about them becoming a problem at the field station.  I do wonder if we might have a bit of leaf damage this year given that I’ve seen so many more adults than usual.  It will be interesting to see if we see a change in canopy density compared to last year as we continue to monitor the phenology of our trees for the National Phenology Network’s citizen science project, Nature’s Notebook.  I’ll certainly be on the lookout for those dangling inchworms in the spring as well!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery

It’s winter in North Carolina.  That’s not to say that it’s cold here everyday because that’s certainly not the case.  It was close to 75 degrees yesterday!  But, we have had some very cold days and several nights where the temps have dropped well below freezing.  It’s cold enough that there aren’t many insects out, so I’m always excited when I see one. Recently, however, there’s been one place that I know I can see live insects outdoors everyday, regardless of the weather or the temperature!  My main office is in this lovely trailer at the museum field station where I work:

Back of the office trailer

Back of the office trailer

Classy, eh?  As you can probably tell from looking at it, our little office building is not very weatherproof.  Cold seeps in during the winter, the AC seeps out in the summer, the doors don’t seal well, and the three rooms vary from too warm to too cold with no room in that perfect Goldilocks zone.  The trailer has two lights on the front, one by each door, and they come on at night.  Only one works.  For the last three weeks, a moth has been sitting in the exact same spot on the wall of the trailer when I’ve arrived at work each day, right next to the working light:

Moth

Moth

I wasn’t convinced it was even alive after a week and a half, so I poked it.  It moved a bit (though not much as it was a chilly day), so it has clearly chosen that spot.  It seems like a bad spot, right out there in the open on the white wall, but the moth apparently likes it.

I often leave work after dark, so I look for the moth every night when I leave to see if it’s still there.  I couldn’t say why exactly, but that little moth, hanging tenaciously to the side of the trailer day and night, amuses me.  Over the last few weeks, however, it’s been joined by other moths of the same species, one more every 2-3 nights.  Warm, cold – it doesn’t matter. Recently I counted 8 moths near the light when I left for the evening:

Moths at light

Moths at light – circles highlight the moths and the arrow points to one additional moth right next to the light that you can’t see in this image

Most of the moths are gone by morning; only that one moth I’ve been seeing for weeks in that one spot is left on the wall once it gets light.  I couldn’t say whether the rest have left under their own power or have been eaten by something, but the next night there will be just as many moths back by the light when I leave.  I suspect they’re hiding during the day and coming back to the light at night.

Now we all know moths are attracted to lights, so seeing moths near a porch light isn’t all that exciting.  What fascinates me about these particular moths at this particular time is how cold it sometimes is when they appear.  I don’t really expect to see insects out where they’re exposed to the cold and weather (these get rained on fairly often and got snowed on last week), plainly visible to predators, on days where the temperature barely gets above freezing.  But there they all are!  We had a few mornings with heavy frost last week and that little moth by the light was practically frozen solid, frosted over like everything else.  Yet it moved when I poked it after it had a chance to defrost.  It’s definitely still alive and is presumably capable of hiding during the day if it wanted to.

I’ve never seen moths on the wall of the trailer in the winter before, so this is a new experience – and one that I don’t know how to explain.  I’ve gone down to our outdoor classroom building to see if there are moths near the light on that building, but there never are.  The walls are brown, the light faces the forest instead of the prairie, and the building is largely unheated, so maybe it’s not as good a spot for the moths.  There are also no moths near the much larger lights in the parking lot, nor on the concrete building across the parking lot where the Musuem’s wet collections are stored (whitish, superior climate control).  There’s something about this particular spot on the trailer that these moths like.  My best guess: they like the light and the heat that oozes out of the walls.  The walls are still quite cold on the outside, but perhaps they are just enough warmer than the surrounding area that the moths can warm up a bit?

I might not understand why they’re there or how they are even capable of coming and going in such cold weather, but I enjoy my moths.  It’s nice to know that even on the coldest nights, I can go out and see a half-dozen little chilly insects hanging on the wall.  I might not live in a place that is warm enough to get lots of insects year around anymore, but at least I know those little moths are out there.  That’s good enough.

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