Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sugaring for Moths

The woodland is the haunt of many a joyous thing, which frequents the glades and hovers over the flowers.
--W.J. Holland
Isn't this a lovely moth? I found him or her on an outside wall of the cabin the other night. To me it looks as though this moth is wearing army camoflauge. I'm pretty sure it's one of the hawkmoths, which are all large, thick-bodied and often brightly colored moths. I think it might be of the Darapsa genus, possiblly Darapsa versicolor, which, if true, is a good find. Although considered rare in much of its range, it was found commonly in western Pennsylvania, which isn't all that far away.
I have a great identification book for moths. It's called The Moth Book and was written by W. J. Holland, director of the C arnegie Museum in Pittsburgh in 1903, though my copy is from 1922. The book has 48 color plates of color photographs of moths, often 20 or more moths to the page and is still the best reference I've ever seen for moths, both in its photographs (color photography must have still been in its infancy in 1903) and in the sheer number of moths described, which must be close to 1000 species. Holland collected all the moths for his book, which he dedicated to Andrew Carnegie.
Near the center of the guide Holland wrote a wonderful essay called "Sugaring for Moths." It starts out: "The day has been hot and sultry. The sun has set behind great banks of clouds which are piling up on the northwestern horizon. Now that the light is beginning to fade, the great masses of cumulus, which are slowly gathering and rising higher toward the zenith, are lit up by pale flashes of of sheet-lightning..." Who can resist? The essay goes on to describe the method Holland used to trap his moths, a method you can easily adapt, even if you do so only to see some of the amazing moths that ply the night so inobtrusively.
Holland mixes sugar with "stale beer and rum." I think any sugary alcoholic beverage will do, though rum is an excellent choice. I just mix sugar and rum, or molasses and rum, which can then be thinned with water. Holland used a brush to paint trees in the forest with this concoction, hung lanterns by each and waited. I suggest covering a sponge with your concoction, placing it outside and then just leaving the porch light on all night. You'll be amazed at the number and diversity of moths that will still be there in the morning, drunk on the alcohol.
Most of the time, I don't drug the local moths. I just check the cabin wall by my porch light in the evenings. The number of moths I get this way aren't as high as when I use the sponge method, but I don't need to do anything specialfor it. Perhaps once a year, often on a hot August night, is when I use the sponge and alcohol mixture to see moths. When I come out of the cabin in the morning, the sides of the cabin and my outdoor plants are just covered with moths. After an hour or so in the morning, the moths will recover and disappear back into their daylight hiding places.

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