ATHOL — What goes bump in the night may not be half as interesting as what is buzzing around in the dark looking for a little light.
Moths always go for the light, and that is what attracts David Small, Sue Cloutier and others who have caught the nature bug. For the past week, moth watchers around the country have been holding events or working individually to see what kind of moth species they can find. Locally, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust held a moth night July 20 at its Skyfields Arboretum in Athol, and there have been many smaller gatherings held throughout the state during the week.
Mr. Small said the week was organized by naturalists in 2005 in New Jersey and it has spread around the United States and to many other countries. He said Moth Week is a chance to discover things people often miss.
“There are things going on at night that we never pay attention to,” Mr. Small said.
How much goes on is the amazing part. Mr. Small said he has been able to identify 650 species of moths at his home over the past few years, just by setting up a cloth and putting a light on it. He said that is a small number compared to what Lula Field in Royalston has found.
“She’s better at it,” she said. “She’s identified 800 at her home.”
Far from being pantry pests, the moths come in all shapes and colors. Some can be confused with butterflies. One could easily be confused with a hummingbird.
The huge numbers of moths dwarf what can be found locally for bird species, butterflies and dragonflies, which are all better studied. Sue Cloutier, also of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, said there are about 2,000 species of moths that have been identified in the state to date. She said she has a list of 612 she has found since she began staying up late looking for moths about a year and a half ago.
Mrs. Cloutier and her husband Ron have traveled all over the northern hemisphere the past 13 years looking for butterflies. Butterflies are still his favorite thing to study, but she has found a new interest.
“I’ve really become addicted to moths,” she said.
Moths have connected her and Mr. Small to a wider professional and amateur scientific community. She said she often communicates with people online late at night letting them know what he has found. Mr. Small is on the science advisory board for National Moth Week along with nationally known entomologists, including David Beadle, who wrote the Peterson Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.
Mrs. Cloutier said it was Mr. Beadle’s field guide that really got people in north Central Massachusetts interested in moths. If she finds a specie she has not seen before, she said she first goes to that guide to help with identification. Then she goes to www.bugguide.net, which is a general website for insects, and also to the Mississippi State University moth photographers group at www.mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu for further identification.
Mrs. Cloutier and Mr. Small put out sheets with lights trained on them to attract their moths, but for someone looking to get started, it does not need to be that complicated.
“The way to start is right at your porch light,” Mrs. Cloutier said.
Moth watchers often gravitate from the porch light to setting up cloths and tents and putting out something sweet to attract the moths. Their efforts also attract a wide variety of bugs and predators that eat bugs, including tree frogs.
Mr. Small said you never know what you will get with your moth lights.
Mrs. Cloutier’s year and a half interest in moths has already set her off on another task. She is working on a book on moths and moth watching. She said she hopes to interview moth watchers from all over the state, focusing not only on the experts, but the amateurs like herself.