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Living the nightlife natural history style - with National Moth Week

July 25, 2012

Photo by Bruce Fellman

A Promethea, or Spicebush, Silkmoth (Callosamia promethea), and a real stunner that appeared at the lights and just hung around most of the next day, a very willing, and easily handled, model.

“There are two worlds; the world of sunshine, and the world of the dark. Most of us are more or less familiarly acquainted with the first; very few are well acquainted with the latter.”

So wrote biologist, professor, and ordained Presbyterian minister William Jacob Holland in 1903 in one of the many charming digressions that flit through The Moth Book: A Popular Guide to a Knowledge of the Moths of North America. And if Dr. Holland, who was chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and, later, directed the Carnegie Museum, has you pegged as a person unfamiliar with night life—well, the natural history kind of night life—you are about to be given a golden opportunity to change your status.

I speak, of course, of National Moth Week.

NMW, a collection of moth-appreciation events around the world, takes place between July 23 and 29 and includes several fairly nearby programs that readers of the Journal can attend. For details, dates, and contact information, as well as to see the remarkable scope of the NMW premiere effort, go to their informative website—nationalmothweek.org—and click on the “Moth Week Events” link. [A Note to Readers: There is at least one event scheduled for Rhode Island, but both the date and the location were uncertain as I wrote this on July 16; check the NMW site for updated information.]

“There’s been an explosion of interest, particularly in the last couple of months,” said David Moskowitz, the New Jersey-based biologist who, along with New Jersey oceanographer Liti Haramaty, got this project rolling. “We have more than 200 events scheduled. Every state except, so far, Nevada and New Mexico, will have either a public or a private moth night during the week, and we’ll have something on every continent, except Antarctica.”

By day, Moskowitz is a senior vice-president of EcolSciences, Inc, a New Jersey environmental sciences consulting firm. But when the energetic and enthusiastic wetlands biologist isn’t at work or conducting research on the tiger spiketail dragonfly for his doctorate at Rutgers, he’s busy with a long-running community effort to get people involved in various aspects of natural history. This has taken the shape of writing, giving lectures, and serving for more than 15 years on the Environmental Commission of his hometown, East Brunswick. It was through the Commission that he got to know Liti Haramaty, who joined the group in 2002; Haramaty conducts research on coral biology for the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

About six years ago, the two biologists, working through the Commission and a booster group called the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission—make sure you check out their website, www.friendsebec.com—had what they thought was a bright idea to tap into public interest in the environment. The groups had already sponsored very well-attended salamander migration nights, and they’d developed a much-frequented butterfly garden. Moskowitz, an unabashedly old-fashioned naturalist, was already enamored of moths and suspected that he wasn’t alone. “There’s long been this perception that moths are nothing more than really boring bland, brown things that eat clothing,” he explained during a telephone interview. “But when you get to know them, you quickly learn that they come in an amazing spectrum of shapes, colors, and patterns. They’re actually really cool, and, because they’re most often creatures of the night, they’re a little mysterious, foreign, and, well, magical.”

So the Commission and the Friends group decided to host a Moth Night at the local butterfly park. “About a hundred people showed up,” said Moskowitz, and thus was born a much-anticipated, and continually well attended, event that takes place several times a year.

A couple of years ago, the two biologists made an effort to expand their program statewide, but, he explained, “we were never able to get any momentum for a regular New Jersey moth night.” Still, they couldn’t quite abandon the idea, which, in time, grew in scope. If their local state wouldn’t work, well, maybe they should instead reach out to the entire country, if not the world. To test the national and international waters, Moskowitz and Haramaty created an NMW website and Facebook page, and launched their effort last fall. “The response was almost instantaneous, and it spread rapidly and organically,” said Moskowitz. “Organizations, state park groups, Audubon societies, and private individuals who loved moths signed up and made a commitment to add NMW to their summer environmental programming. We were absolutely astonished.”

And gratified.

One important offshoot of the NMW endeavor is that it will offer participants a chance to do some serious science. The NMW organizers have teamed with Internet-oriented groups like Project Noah, Discover Life, the Moth Photographers Group, BugGuide, Butterflies and Moths of North America, and others to pool data from various moth nights. “This will help us improve range maps for moths and fill in the blanks,” said Moskowitz. “Just like interested amateurs have been doing for birds and butterflies.”

Moskowitz emphasized that potential “moth-ers” don’t need to be intimidated by a lack of knowledge about identification. Not only is there a new field guide available—the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, published this spring—but many of the cooperating sites listed need little more than a good digital photo of the moth and the GPS coordinates of the discoverer, and they’ll do the identifying.

“Basically, we want people to go out and have fun,” said Moskowitz. “If we can use NMW to turn them on to what’s in their own backyard, then hopefully something will click and they’ll start to think twice about environmental issues like recycling, and preserving habitats and biodiversity. It’s especially gratifying to see the smiles on the faces of kids when they see moths.”

At the end of The Moth Book, which, incidentally, is still in print and well worth having, even if many of the classifications have changed, Holland emphasizes the soul-satisfying importance of understanding “something of the wonders of a world which becomes the more wonderful the more we know of it.”

Turn on the porch lights. Bait the trees with a special blend of sugar syrup (you can find recipes at the NMW website). Attend an event at which an enthusiast puts up a light and a sheet, which is another sure-fire attractor. Next week, get out at night to see what happens when the lepidopteran workers who toil by day are replaced by the moths—essentially butterflies that work the night shift. You’re in for a genuine treat.

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