The Beauty of Moths

With the first day of summer approaching in the northern hemisphere, now is a good time to take a look at moths. We still have a few warm months to marvel at the beauty of these ghostly insects.

Moths make up the vast majority of the Lepidoptera family, with 160,000 worldwide species. In contrast, there are about 15,000 species of butterflies.

Just like butterflies, moths go through metamorphosis, and feed on plant nectar. They’re marvelous pollinators.

Unlike butterflies, moths are primarily nocturnal.

More moth info: Moth Wikipedia and Lepidoptera Wikipedia

I first started appreciating moths while traveling in the tropics. Frequently prowling at night, looking for owls and other creatures, we have found some extraordinary moths. In Africa some moths are as big as your hand.

Here is a moth who landed on our bungalow steps in Belize. This elegant individual cooperatively transferred onto a white envelope for better photographing.

But you don’t need to travel to exotic places to see moths.

All you need are warm temperatures and night scenes.

Light attracts moths. So there are many ways to observe them, from the simplest way of leaving your porch light on, to more scientific methods with UV lights and trapping techniques.

If you’re really into it, there are recipes for making a sugar mixture. You cool the syrup and paint it onto a tree with a paint brush.

There are also safe ways to build a trap, to gently funnel the moths into a vessel. Then you release the moths when you’re done observing.

There are many variations of DIY mothing methods, I have included several website links below.

But personally, I find the more complicated something like this gets, the less frequently I will do it. So we stick to simple mothing methods and keep it a spontaneous adventure that can be quickly assembled.

Here are two different mothing set-ups in our backyard.

The two main tools we use are: a UV light and a white surface.

We use an extension cord near an electrical outlet, grab the UV light and prop it on top of a box. It only takes a few minutes.

Our set-up costs about $20. I ordered a party “black” light from Amazon.

Turning on the light beforehand, at dusk, helps to increase the insect collection. Then we come out with flashlights in the dark and the show begins.

I use my close-focus binoculars, can see great details, while Athena photographs.

I was amazed at the beautiful flying insects that came into our light. We’d been living here nearly two decades before discovering our night insects.

Different moths cycle through in different seasons, just like birds.

This is a plume moth we first saw in the fall, but have not yet seen this summer.

I didn’t know what the “plumes” actually looked like, until I found this 17th Century drawing.

Plume moth drawing by Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, from Nat’l. Library of Wales. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Most of our moths are small, the size of a coin, and dark colored. But there are always variations, like the Darwin’s Green Moth featured earlier.

And it’s not just moths who come to the light.

Other insects join the party too.

Afterwards, it’s important to turn out the light and put away the sheet, otherwise birds will eat the insects in the morning.

A unique way for people of all ages to enjoy the outdoors on a summer night. Have fun celebrating the summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mothing Links:

Citizen Science Organization on Mothing

Moth Lights from calnature.org

Hummingbird Moths and Mothing from baynature.org

UK website on Butterflies and Moths

74 thoughts on “The Beauty of Moths

  1. This is one of my favorite posts of yours. You also have my creative mind spinning. I’ll be dwelling on moth trappers and what “else” might show up in the middle of the night, attracted to the traps.

    • I am smiling, Craig, happy that this post was a favorite for you. Moths are really interesting creatures. I have found myself quite smitten. And my smile just broadened considerably, thinking about the creatures that could show up in one of your new books. I’m pondering what Lizzie and the Hat might come upon, and confident that they would get to the bottom of any evil doing.

      • It’s going to stick with me all day until I figure something out. Might take a year to write it, but it’s a great setup. When I first moved here, there was an outbreak of leopard moths as big as my palm. I’ve seen tiny ones since, but nothing quite like them.

  2. In all too many cases, people try to “zap” these creatures from their lives, but as you so eloquently point out, moths & co. have some beauty for appreciation. Driving home after dark last evening, I braked a couple times for the gorgeous luna moth that fluttered through the headlights. Thank you, Jet!

    • I heard myself gasp, Walt, when I read that you saw several luna moths. How absolutely delightful. Gosh, the beauty in nature is just endless, how lucky we are. Thanks so very much for your fine words and compliments today. I hope your day is blessed with beautiful sights, my friend.

  3. I want very much to write more Jet. This time of day is perfect for working outside, it’s cooler!
    What an incredible collection of amazing moth’s, such great photos (as always!)
    We have some but not nearly as many as you. Thanks so much for sharing dear heart, Eddie

  4. Unfortunately it’s too late (and was already when I woke at 5:30 am) to get out before it gets hot, but I have to go out soon anyway to get groceries for my parents and us. Thank goodness for air conditioning. Anyway…what fun to see all these moths! My favorites were the hummingbird moths that used to visit our butterfly bush in Illinois. At first glance, they looked like hummingbirds (hence the name obviously) but they were quite attractive. Happy Friday, Jet, and have a lovely weekend.

    janet

    • I find hummingbird moths absolutely fascinating, Janet. And I liked hearing about the ones that came to your butterfly bush. I have only seen them three times, and hope to see many more. But until then, there are so many other delightful moths to celebrate. Really enjoyed your comment, Janet, thanks so much.

    • I imagine with living in CR for four years, there was never ever a dull moment with all the wildlife wonders that that country has to offer. And it’s never too late to check out your current garden. Many thanks, Cathy, for your visit and comment today.

  5. What a neat variety of Moths!! I’ve only seen a few types myself, and only one really big one.
    I really liked the brown one that looks like its wings are leaves. That’s a cool camouflage!

    We seem to be having a moth invasion here this summer. I’ve caught several in the house already, and on the neighborhood chat, there’s been talk about a boom year for moths.

    I may try your viewing method one day. It looks pretty neat.

    • It sounds like the perfect time to pull out a UV light and see what moths you can attract, Deborah. The variety is amazing. Binoculars help, so you don’t have to sit super close but still have great details to admire. And I know you’re out in the night taking those spectacular celestial photographs, might as well check out a few moths too. Have fun, and many thanks, Deborah.

  6. It’s great that you’ve put these guys “under a microscope” for us. Moths are something most people (including me) don’t even think about or bother to look closely at. But when you stick these photos under our noses, WOW! It’s quite an education. Their beauty is in their diverse shapes, designs, patterns, and colours, and then there is so much more to learn about their habits. A simple moth! Not so simple, really.

    • Yes, moths don’t have the same allure as, say, butterflies, but there is much to admire and observe and learn about them. I am really happy this moth post piqued your interest, Anneli. My warm thanks.

  7. Very informative post, Jet …

    Being in tropics, we are lucky to spot a wide variety of moths every other day…

    Even I was lucky to photograph an ‘Atlas Moth’ in our garden some time back…

    It is always interesting to observe the finer details of Moths, right even though they might be a bit less attractive compared to butterflies in terms of color.

    Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    • Wonderful to hear from you, Sreejith, thanks so much. I had to look up the atlas moth after what you said, and oh my, what a moth!! That’s a beauty, and so very big too. I can imagine the wide variety of moths you must have, and I appreciated hearing about the atlas moth. Many, many thanks.

  8. Interesting. And loved your moth attraction set-up with the Amazon party light – easier than the Cal Nature rig! How do you choose between watching the moths gather or jumping aboard the Bat Bus?? ha

    • Your comment had me laughing, Nan. There is so much nature ALWAYS to look at and discover. But in answer to your question, the bats come out early, right around dusk, so it doesn’t interfere with the mothing which is more like 9 pm. Oh how you know me. Thanks for giving me a fun laugh today.

  9. I loved this post exploring the nocturnal world of moths, Jet. Under appreciated, moths are important pollinators and food source for many birds. Sadly, we’ve seen a huge decline in moths here in recent years, rather worrisome as they are a vital link in an ecosystem. Our two stars that breed in June are Cecropia and Luna moths – they are huge and so beautiful!

    • Oh what fun to hear about the cecropia and luna moths in your neck of the woods, Eliza. I’m aware of the luna, this beautiful ethereal wonder, but I was not familiar with the cecropia. So I looked it up, and what a beauty. Wikipedia says it is the largest No. American native moth. And you’re right, moths are important pollinators. I hope they do not continue to decline. Thanks so much, Eliza.

  10. Thank you and Athena for reminding us about moths! We don’t often see them, but when we do they are wonderful. My most vivid impression was a hummingbird moth I saw a few years ago. I thought it was an actual hummingbird.

    • I was really confused by my first hummingbird moth, too, Hien. It was night and pitch black out, yet this buzzing flying creature was dipping into the honeysuckle nectar. I liked hearing about your hummingbird moth experience, and appreciate your visit today, Hien. Thank you.

  11. Moths are definitely really cool creatures – some of them look absolutely out of this world! And while we don’t have any of the green stink bugs here in Indiana, we do have the brown ones, alllll over our house haha.

    • I liked your comment on the moths, M.B., and laughed at the stink bug comment. They do seem to find their way around our house too, espec. in the fall. Mostly we see brown stinkbugs, like you. Great fun, M.B., thank you.

    • Yes, Jan, we are sweltering here in the North Bay too. 104.5 was our high today. Hot yesterday, too. And PG&E turned our power off for the day yesterday to add to the drama. Stay cool my friend, and thanks for stopping by.

  12. The green moth is so beautiful! It’s lovely to read about how much you enjoy your mountain backyard.
    I won’t be setting up a viewing area for moths – I’m not ashamed to admit to being twitchy about small flying creatures fluttering close to me at night. This is definitely too far outside my comfort zone. Oddly, I’m ok if I can’t see them, and it’s quite enough to know they are there. I should probably seek help…
    A great post as we head into the outdoor delights of summer – thanks, Jet!

    • I enjoyed your comment, pc, as always, and appreciated your confession. Gave me a smile. The best thing is to know your comfort zone, and this you do. My friend, always a true pleasure….

  13. Insects are famous for being annoying, also, they have ways to defend themselves, despite the size of the opponent. My wife lives terrified of them. Thank you for the post, my dear friend, as always you have plenty of information and great writing. 🙂 🪰

    • Yes, insects can get a bad rap, espec. if one is not familiar. But if we didn’t have insects, we would not have birds, and you and I know how important our birds are. I am delighted you enjoyed the moth post, H.J., thanks so very much.

  14. Most of the moths I see are little ones, but they’re more colorful than I’d realized a moth could be. I can’t remember the names of them now, but there’s a pretty black and white one, a yellow and red striped thingie, and a nice cream-colored specimen. All those fly during the day, or at least are out and about. (Don’t you love my scientific vocabulary?) That’s all right. Appreciation can come before knowledge, and lead to it eventually!

    • It’s a big world, the world of moths, and fun to explore it regardless of having the scientific vocabulary. I enjoyed your comment, Linda, and agree completely. My warmest thanks.

  15. Moths are so underappreciated and all lumped into a pest category by folks who think they all eat wool. They are important members of our ecosystem, as are all insects, and I am glad to see a post declaring them beautiful, Jet. Many rival butterflies and a few, such as the Cecropia and your Silkworm moths out-spectacular them.
    I don’t see as many in our yard as I used to, most likely thanks to a neighbor who uses chemicals to enhance his lawn. Insects don’t know property lines, sadly. Coincidentally, I posted one from my backyard in this morning’s post.

    • Thanks so very much, Steve, for your appreciative and thoughtful comment. Moths are indeed underappreciated, but not by you or by me. I look forward to checking out the photo of a moth in your yard, and always enjoy your artistic photos so much. It’s always a pleasure when you stop by, thank you.

  16. 160,000 worldwide species, about 15,000 species of butterflies– I didn’t know that. Thank you for sharing. The green moth and the Green Stink Bug, Wow…

    • It is quite remarkable how very many species of moths we have on this planet, isn’t it, Amy? I’m happy you enjoyed the post, thanks so much for stopping by.

  17. Never would have thought of observing moths. Now I’m thinking maybe doing it in our Marsh. Maybe will see some cool ones. 😎

    • Hi Bill, I’m glad I got you thinking about the moths on your marsh. And I would imagine you have some beauties there. I hope you are enjoying a pleasant Father’s Day today. Thanks so very much for your visit today.

  18. Thanks so much for the moth insight, Jet! I was thinking of you last night as dozens of lightening bugs put on a beautiful mating light show! As we get closer to July it will be hundreds, I can hardly wait! Wish you were here to see it all!

  19. Well, this was certainly fun! Memories of a hummingbird moth scaring the bejeebus out of me one summer night in Utah. If memory serves, they’re the size of hummingbirds. Though that might perhaps be an exaggeration? Drat if you haven’t added one too many thing to my To-Do list!!! 😉

    • I enjoyed your visit as always, Gunta. It is no exaggeration that the hummingbird moth is the size of a hummingbird. They sound like h-birds too with that buzzing when they fly and hover. Had to chuckle at one scaring you on a summer night, and I don’t doubt it. In the dark they are not something we’re used to. My warmest thanks for your lovely visit today, Gunta.

  20. How lovely to highlight moths. I had not really thought about the fact that many people don’t like them so its good to show how interesting, varied and beautiful they can be. Judging from the fewer and fewer insects attracted to our houselights at night over the past years, moths and other flying nocturnal insects are in huge decline around here, which is sad and troubling.
    I enjoyed the photos and seeing your DIY method for observing moths.

    • The first time I saw moths in your home continent of Africa, Carol, was in Kenya in 2000. We were staying at The Ark in Aberdare NP and they left the lights on at night so guests could observe wildlife coming in for water. They were the biggest moths I had ever seen in my life, then and since. It is sad to hear they are in huge decline, because the pollinating they do is so important. Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing the beauty of moths.

  21. Interesting! I didn’t realize that moths were mostly nocturnal. I love the details on the silkworm moth. Thinking I need to spend more time outdoors after sunset.. Thanks for the great info and pics.

    • Thank you, Dave. If you do set out the moth “welcome mat,” I think you will be surprised at what you will find. I enjoyed your comment and words, thanks very much.

  22. A moth party! I feel like i want to send our invitations just to get the RSVP comments. My guess is that here perhaps the variety would be less? Our 5 year old granddaughter asked just last week what the difference between moths and butterflies was. We were pathetically under prepared to answer. Thank you for the fascinating post.

    • I think this comment qualifies for joining the moth party, Sue, and how fun that is. I loved hearing about your granddaughter’s question (she’s five already?!) and am sure you and Dave were on it with the info. I find it interesting that one of the differences is that the antennae on a butterfly are clubbed, whereas the moth’s are not. Truly that would be difficult to point out to a 5 yo, but photos always help. Makes for fun summer exploration. Thanks so much, Sue.

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