Seven Surprising Facts about Moths I Learned on my First Mothing Night

Luna Moth
Luna Moth

Luna Moth

What’s a Mothing Night?

Something I had always wanted to try, but never did, was to set up a bright light at night in order to attract moths.  When I heard of other birding friends who did this regularly, I invited them to my house in the woods of Central PA to see what they could attract.  Paul Dennehy, a 9th grade science teacher who has been mothing for a score of years, brought his equipment and set it up in the yard before it got dark. I learned some surprising facts about moths that night!

Fact #1

The names are in Latin!  When Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths was authored with Charles Covell in 1984, the publisher told him he needed to include the common names.  Peterson said that there were no common names!  He was then told to make them up, which he did using the Latin to help with some of the naming.  The problem with learning only the common names is that others have also named them something completely different.  Conversation during our Mothing night went like this: “Oh look, here’s a Eubaphe mendica.  This is a Microcrambus elegans.”

Eubaphe mendica

Beggar Moth, Eubaphe mendica

Large Maple Spanworm

Large Maple Spanworm, Prochoerodes lineola

Fact #2

Since there are at least 12,000 North American moths, there are way too many to learn to recognize right off the bat.  I felt overwhelmed with the numbers and variety of moths that came to our lights.  I was told that most people start with learning the larger flashier moths, like the giant silk moths, and add to their knowledge with gradually smaller moths with time.

The Giant Leopard Moth was my favorite.  It was a large white moth with black spots, but if you shone a light on it sideways, the spots on its wings, legs, and abdomen were a luminous blue.  The Beautiful Wood Nymph was my friend, David Brown’s favorite.  It looked like a bird dropping, and it landed on his jacket and stayed there quite awhile.  We saw quite a variety of shapes, sizes, and markings!

Giant Leopard Moth

Giant Leopard Moth,  Hypercompe scribonia

Giant Leopard Moth

Giant Leopard Moth,  Hypercompe scribonia

Beautiful Wood Nymph

Beautiful Wood Nymph, Eudryas grata

Fact #3

Some of the names are longer than the moths! They’re referred to as micro moths.  With wing spans less than 20mm, they are hard to see, much less to identify ( at least to this untrained eye!)

Microcambus elegans

Microcrambus elegans, Elegant Grassveneer

Fact #4

The Luna moth and another Giant Silk Worm moth, the Polyphemas, do not float along like the moth in the commercial for the sleep aid, Lunesta. They flop and crash headlong into the ground and beat themselves up against the window screens!  They generally don’t show up till very late, almost midnight, so many people don’t stick around long enough to see the “good ones.”

Polyphemus Moth

Polyphemus Moth

Fact #5

Many moths have no mouthparts. They live for a day or two which is long enough to reproduce, lay their eggs, and then die. Luna and Polyphemus Moths are examples. Other moths nectar at flowers at night, just like their day-flying counterparts, the butterflies.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth, photo by David Brown

Fact #6

More than just moths show up for the light show.  We had June bugs, 2-inch beetles, Daddy-long-legs, and Crane Flies also.  If the sheet loaded with moths is left till morning, the birds may also show up to help themselves to breakfast!

Prionis laticollis

Broad-necked Root Borer, Prionis laticollis

Fact #7

Just as birders keep a life list for the backyard, county, or state, Moth enthusiasts also keep a list, specimens, and report their species of moths for scientific research.  Paul Dennehy, the expert with us, was very excited to have found many new moths for the county in our night of Mothing.  If you would like to try this yourself, you can find the how-to’s on the National Moth Week site. The photo below shows our set-up which involved clipping a sheet to a clothesline or wire,  and putting lights on either side.  The types of moths that come to the light change from week to week as the season progresses, so we may try this again.  Great fun!


Mothing with Paul Dennehy, photo by David Brown

Desmia funeralis

Grape leaffolder, Desmia funeralis


Isa textula

Crowned Slug Moth, Isa textula

Anisota virginiensis

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth, Anisota virginiensis



Lauren Shaffer

Lauren Shaffer wrote 146 posts

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