PARKERSBURG -- To many people, moths are merely the brownish, thumbnail-sized winged insects that cling passively to window screens at night, if they’re not mindlessly orbiting lampshades or being lured to noisy, premature deaths in front porch bug zappers.
In the court of human opinion, the moth places a distant second to the other occupant of the order Lepidoptera -- the butterfly.
But as a group of 30 nature lovers discovered on a recent “Moth Night”expedition to Blennerhassett Island, the lowly moth is an insect worthy of high appreciation.
“Moth species outnumber those of butterflies by a factor of 15 to one,” said Emily Grafton, the regional Master Naturalist coordinator who organized and led last Sunday’s Moth Night expedition. “Many of them are as stunningly beautiful as butterflies and yet are rarely seen, because they work at night.”
More than 150,000 species of moth are known to exist worldwide, with 11,000 of them found in North America. They range in size from Southeast Asia’s atlas moth, with a wingspan of nearly one foot, to the European pygmy sorrell moth, with a wingspan of 3 millimeters. In West Virginia, luna and royal walnut moths, with wingspans of up to six inches, are among the largest moths found.
Over the millenia, moths have made a number of striking evolutionary adaptations to help them survive and thrive.
“Some moths look like bird droppings, while others look like wasps, leaves, tree bark or twigs,” Grafton said. “They’re excellent mimics.”
One image problem facing West Virginia moths is the presence here of the destructive gypsy moth, which in its caterpillar stage, has defoliated millions of acres of hardwoods, mainly oaks. The gypsy moth is not a native species, but an unwelcome European emigree, having been imported into the country in 1869 by a Massachusetts man who wanted to use the moth caterpillar as an alternative to the silkworm in a failed effort to produce silk domestically. Not long after arriving in-country, the gypsy moth escaped its New England farm and slowly munched its way southwestward,entering West Virginia in 1972 and occupying more than 40 counties by last year.
Native moth species, on the other hand, are doing much to sustain wildlife and assist farmers.
Moth caterpillars, when in season here, account for 50 to 60 percent of the food consumed by songbirds nesting in the state. Night-flying adult moths are a prime source of food for bats.
“Moths are great pollinators, too,” an attribute especially important in the current era of bee decline, said Mike Williams of Marietta, Ohio, who was among those taking part in Moth Night activities.
“Moths provide an important link in the ecology of our forest ecosystems,” said Grafton. “Much information is needed about their populations,” she said, to help landowners take them into account in their management decisions.
Getting a better handle on the moth’s presence was part of the reason that Sunday’s event was held in conjunction with National Moth Week, an effort to promote citizen science while gathering moth range and population data from across the country during the peak activity period for most adult moths.
After arriving on Blennerhassett Island following a sternwheeler ride from Belpre, Ohio, Moth Night participants used the fading daylight to help Grafton set up a series of moth observation posts. Sheets were draped from ropes connected to trees or open-sided picnic shelter roofbeams and black lights (moths see better in ultraviolet light) were connected to extension cords and trained on the sheets to attract moths dwelling on the Ohio River island.
After daylight and a few brief thundershowers faded away, moths began to turn up on the sheets.
Some moths were out and about in search of nectar, while others were searching for mates.
“The adult moth’s job is mainly to mate and lay eggs,” said Brad Bond, a member of the Marietta Natural History Society and another Moth Night participant. “They won’t be spending much time on feeding.”
By the time Moth Night activities on the island drew to a close, scores of moths had been photographed on the ultraviolet-illuminated sheets for identification and tabulation purposes and for personal keepsakes.
“Some of them are really colorful,” said Williams, a retired photographer for the Ohio DNR. “To me, things that come out at night are especially interesting, since they’re rarely seen.”
Grafton said she hopes to make Moth Night an annual event at Blennerhassett.
“But it’s also something you can have fun doing in your own back yard,”she said.
For more information on National Moth Week, now in its third year, visit www.nationalmothweek.org.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.