‘Refuge’ educates at annual Moth Night

August 2, 2018

Before picking up that bug zapper and sending moths to an early demise, you should give it a second thought, said Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge manager Marcus Stuart.

Stuart explained that moths are good for the environment and should be spared.

In a presentation at the Refuge office on Saturday, July 21 to about three dozen moth enthusiasts from around the county, he spent a little more than 30 minutes delivering an education on the sometime pesky moths.

The Refuge, a 30,000-acre area preserved for wildlife, provides some of the habitat for the multitudes of moth species documented in the area.

But just outside the office door, Stuart has captured on camera at least 900 species, adding three more in July.

“We used to office in downtown Liberty,” he said, but when they moved out to their newer existing space, nature was at their backdoor—literally.

“I came to work here six years ago, and we have these security lights around here and I noticed a large number of critters and bugs at the door,” he said.

His curiosity got the best of him and he grabbed his camera and started taking photos of these bugs.

“It’s gotten crazy since then,” he laughed.

Now he sponsors the unusual Moth Night at the Refuge to share his passion and incredible findings.

To attract the nocturnal bugs he sets up sheets, hanging them along the sidewalk behind the building. Then he uses white light and various other types of light to shine on the sheets and attract the moths who land on the sheets.

“You’ve heard the expression that a moth will fly into a fire and kill themselves, but not all moths,” he cautioned.

There are moths that only see a certain spectrum of light, some that see light and fly the other way and yet others who it doesn’t affect them one way or another.

At the end of the presentation inside, the lepidopterists (people who study moths and butterflies) come prepared with their cell phones and cameras to get photographs of the bugs. Many will also have a flashlight to give them additional light to shine on a specific species and get that special shot.

The moths in his display cases inside and photos are the ones attracted to light leaving him to believe that there may be as many as another 200 undocumented species living outside his backdoor that he may never see that are not attracted to light.

“Many,” Stuart said, “believe the moth is simply the ugly step-child of the butterfly, but by the end of the evening, I hope my presentation will elevate the profile of the moth,” he smiled.

To keep up with the large number of species, lepidopterists use the Hodges number—a sequential numbering system set up in the 1980s by the famous Ronald William Hodges, an American entomologist and lepidopterist.

He introduced the MONA (Moths of North America) numbering scheme in 1983.

Identifying the moths can be difficult, but there are some websites and agencies amateur lepidopterists can submit their photos to for identification.

Stuart said it can take a great deal of luck and patience, but he recommended BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America), or to Bug Guide, MPG-Moth Photographers Group, iNaturalist, or doing your own research at the library with reference books.

Most moths are identified by dissecting the genitalia and making drawings for comparison. Stuart said the genitalia may be the only difference in determining the correct species.

“That’s not the only determining factor,” he said. “Sometimes a moth in the fall may look different from the same moth in the spring. It’s very complicated at times,” Stuart said.

As many as 4,000 species of moths have been identified in Texas and only 500 species of butterflies. Across the United States, that number reaches into the 15,000-plus number of species.

Moths are broken down into two basic categories: macros and micros or large and small.

“They are much smaller than a butterfly and, in some instances, a laid-out butterfly could bear as many as 10 or more on the back of the smallest butterfly,” the Refuge manager explained.

Some moths are barely visible at all and need a microscope for examination.

The adult phase of life can be up to two weeks and then they die. Outside of their reproductive mating, moths are food for just about any species.

“There are some subtle and distinct differences between moths and butterflies the main one being the antennae. Butterflies are thin with a club-shaped tip, while moths have a comb-like antennae with no club,” Stuart said.

Another is butterflies are day-flyers while moths are mostly nocturnal.

The refuge manager also suggested another characteristic that sets the two apart is the shape of the butterfly is somewhat redundant, while the moth can have numerous body shapes and colors.

“Moths have a lot of nice colors on them from every color in the palette,” he said.

Sometimes the colors are not even visible until the wings unfold revealing brilliant hues and tints.

Unlike butterflies that can fly thousands of miles to migrate, moths travel much less.

“There is one exception with this one called ‘The Gem’ which has been known to cross long distances of open sea,” Stuart said.

Names or nicknames for the moths can be just as varied and humorous. From Batman, to Beggar to the Exposed Bird Dropping Moth (and yes, it looks just that disgusting), Stuart couldn’t say who named them, but thought they were intriguing nonetheless.

Moths, according to Stuart, have defense mechanisms that include toxicity and the ability to block signals of other animals with their own.

“The Hieroglyphic moth larvae have the potential to become pests of crops such as pecan, soybean, and sweet potato. Their larvae are toxic, and birds have been observed feeding on the larvae and immediately spitting them out,” he said.

The euerythra phasma or red-tailed specter moth emits a sound to baffle bats to prevent them from eating them. Others like the ‘smeared dagger’ moth rely on their color-scheme to camouflage themselves to avoid becoming an entrée or appetizer.

Moths are good for pollination, food sources, they also eat Chinese tallow but not enough of them, Stuart joked.

Reptiles, mammals, animals all eat them.

“There’s really not a lot of bad about moths, they’re only doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said, “but if you give them a bunch of clothes in a closet, it will be a buffet!” he laughed.

Stuart said he’s receiving more and more calls to make the presentation on the tiny creatures and hopes the trend continues.


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