Moth Ball

Just before dawn in late May, it’s time to head out with my camera to document a party that’s been going on all night on the far side of our shed. It’s a quiet affair, no music to keep the neighborhood awake, just some very attractive lights in an assortment of wavelengths and temperatures to suit the tastes of my guests:  mercury vapor, blacklight, incandescent, fluorescent.

Photo: Dan Bailey

Some nights, when it’s chilly or wet, no one ventures out. But when the temperatures rise, they’ll pack the house. Or sheets, rather. I’m never sure who will be there. Will tonight bring the badwing, a pale beauty, a morbid owlet, or a confused meganola? Maybe I’ll see the cloaked marvel, a distinct Quaker, the Laugher, or even a pleasant dagger.

It’s guaranteed there will be many who are completely unfamiliar. The paparazzi will be busy.

I’ve been hosting backyard moth parties for the past 5 years or so, ever since I discovered that there was an entire nocturnal set of creatures that I was missing out on. As a kid, my only association with moths was the smell of mothballs. My mother kept precious fabric heirlooms and bedding packed tightly away with those pungent white crystalline nuggets in a wooden trunk. Because my grandmother also used mothballs, that scent always meant family, antiquity, heavy flannel sheets and hand-loomed wool coverlets. Now the old wooden trunk is mine and the mothballs are gone, but their scent lingers. Opening it delivers an immediate and direct olfactory summons to memories of early childhood. This is just how I visualize a female moth’s invisible chemistry working, pheromones wafting through the warm spring night and luring a distant male.

luna close

If the neighbors wonder at the mysterious lights shining through the night, they are even more baffled when I explain what I’m trying to attract.  Instead of packing away bedding with chemicals intended to repel moths, I’m hanging sheets as welcome banners.  Big, bold-colored moths like polyphemus or luna, the charismatic megafauna of the moth world, arrive in stunning regalia and offer the sensation of holding a fairy on your finger.  Even the tiniest moths are fantastically decked out, though often hard to spot.

Often other nocturnal animals – beetles, flies, tree hoppers, lacewings – get wind of the festivities at the lights. Spiders are notorious party-crashers, as are mantisflies, toads, and parasitic wasps.

Mothing brings a nightly treasure trove and is a notoriously addictive hobby (especially if your idea of fun is hours spent trying to discern the identity of a 5mm mystery by digging through field guides and online arrays of bugs). Thankfully, there is a large online community willing to help out and cheer on each new discovery.  National Moth Week, an international celebration of moths, supports amateur enthusiasts and uses citizen science data to gain a more complete picture of these obscure creatures.

The event breaks up before daylight to avoid predation by early-rising house wrens. The lights go off, guests are shaken from their light inebriation and sent fluttering off  to more protected places. Sometimes they return with the darkness, but usually each night is a whole new Moth Ball.

For more photos of the moths I’ve photographed over the years, please visit my Flickr album.