This month, the new edition of John Himmelman’s classic moth-er’s guide, Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard, Eastern North American Species, was published by Rowman & Littlefield just in time for National Moth Week.
A follow-up to his 2002 guide, the book features a profile of NMW, including how the idea for a week devoted to moths sprung from a casual conversation between Liti Haramaty and Dave Moskowitz, and quickly caught on internationally.
But the book is much more than that.
According to the publisher, Himmelman explains “the intricacy of moths’ life cycle, their importance in nature, and how just a tiny handful of the many moth species are truly pests to humans. He tells how to attract moths with lights and bait, when and where to observe them, and how best to photograph these tiny subjects. Entertaining personal anecdotes and short profiles of some of the country’s foremost moth-ers add human interest…”
A resident of Connecticut, Himmelman is perhaps best known as the author and illustrator of some 90 children’s books, many with nature-related themes. His books for adults also include Discovering Amphibians, Frogs and Salamanders of the Northeast; Guide to Night Singing Insects of the Northeast; and Cricket Radio: Tuning In To the Night-Singing Insects. He is a cofounder and current president of the Connecticut Butterfly Association and lectures on various natural history topics.
We asked Himmelman to answer some questions and also tell our fellow moth-ers how they can get a discount on his new book.
We are so proud to be included in your new edition. How did you first learn about NMW?
I first learned about NMW via Facebook, which has become a great place to share the moths we find. If you type in “moths” to search that network, you’ll find an endless scroll of groups focusing on that interest. There’s even a page with nearly 13,000 members where they pretend to be moths! It’s called, oddly enough, “A Group Where We All Pretend To Be Moths”.
How did you get interested in moths and other insects?
I’ve been chasing bugs since I was four years old. I grew up on a dead-end street that backed up to our elementary school yard in Oceanside, New York. My friends and I had the freedom to explore without our parents worrying about us playing in traffic, and would spend hours flipping rocks and logs and chasing all manner of flying and crawling insects. In 2nd or 3rd grade, I started a neighborhood “bug club”, where we’d collect everything we found and house them in a big room over my friend’s garage. For reference, we had the Golden Nature Guide “Insects” by Herbert Zim, which I still have and still treasure!
Moths became a more focused interest at around the same time as butterflies – in the late 80s. As with many who have discovered these insects, it was the action at our porchlight that drew me in. I remember seeing my first Rosy Maple Moth and couldn’t believe these sherbet-y creatures not only lived in my Connecticut yard, but were common!
Why do you think moths are worth observing? (We are always trying to convince people of this)
There are several aspects of this group that make them worthy of our attention. For one, they get you off the couch and outdoors at a time most people have settled in for the day. The night is a wonderful time to explore, even if it’s just your yard. Make that “especially” if it’s just your yard! Knowing that creatures like Luna Moths, Blinded Sphinxes, and the colorful plagodises, tigers, and emeralds share your living space makes them all the more special.
Then there’s the aesthetics of their colors, patterns, and forms. They’re just beautifully designed! Just look at those teddy bear faces on some of the Plusiinae Loopers!
Lest we forget, moths are also pollinators. The fact that there are far more moths than butterflies add to their value in maintaining healthy flora.
Finally, but certainly not least important, there’s the whole treasure hunt aspect. It is not unusual to head out to the glowing sheet and find something I’ve never seen before. It’s an endorphin-firer! Humans like collecting things.
As an illustrator and writer with a BFA, how did you develop the knowledge base to write about moths and other insects?
I write about things that interest me. Most people have ingrained in us an urge to share that which we find interesting. That act of sharing amplifies the experience. It’s like when you taste something good and want someone else to have a taste. Or saw a movie and you can’t wait to tell someone about it. It’s what made me want to write a book about moths. What I love about National Moth Week is it allows thousands of people to engage in such a shared experience on a huge scale! And it takes place in the same time period which adds to the collective energy of the night (not that the day-fliers are eschewed!)
But interest isn’t knowledge. I should mention that I also like to write about things I wish to learn more about. For Discovering Moths, I read every book I could get my hands on that covered moths. There were not a lot for the lay person, but Charles Covell’s Peterson Guide is well worn, as is Louis Handfield’s Papillions Du Quebec. Theodore Sargents Legions of Night” is a work of art.
And of course, there’s talking to people who know more than I do! That said, there were still some mistakes in the first edition that I was relieved to be able to fix in this 2nd Edition – 20 years later.
What would you say to kids and adults who’ve never considered going out at night to watch moths, and not swat them?
For those who’ve never ventured out into the night toward one of those glowing sheets or bait-slathered trees, I think you’d be surprised at what’s happening on the other side of your windows. Many begin there— the windows, as the light from your home attracts a lot of insects (as well as the occasional treefrog). For me, I got my first real taste while lingering at the front porchlight of my house.
Even if you are away from lights, you find moths, and many other insects, on flowers and leaves. Take a walk on a trail with your flashlight. In my book, I talk about how the beam of your light spotlights anything you look at— making it seem more special.
And moths are harmless. People should know that. They don’t sting. They don’t bite. Some are likely very distasteful, so just don’t eat them— simple! Yes, there are pests among them, as there are with most orders of fauna; Spongy Moths, Brown-tailed Moths, Flour Moths…, but these non-native species make up a TINY percentage of the vastly larger number beneficial species that evolved to be here. Since it’s the pests we tend to notice, due to their… pestiness, they unfairly label the group as fellow pests.
How can our fellow moth-ers get a special discount on your book?
Until the end of July, the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, is offering a 30% discount on Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard, Eastern North American Species. Go to this link and use the code MOTHS to get the discount. You will have to create an account and password when ordering. This offer is only available through Rowman & Littlefield, not Amazon.
Thank you, John Himmelman for helping us find beauty in moths and joy in observing them.
Learn more about John Himmelman at www.johnhimmelman.com.