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The Many-Splendored Moths of Montpelier


Published August 10, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Bryan Pfeiffer
  • Moths

They fly by night to our farms, porches and backyards by the thousands. Some no bigger than a grain of rice, others the size of your palm, they twinkle gold and silver and glow hot pink, metallic blue and 50 shades of brown. Our names for them attest to their diversity (and to the whimsy of biologists): chocolate prominent, beautiful wood-nymph, once-married underwing, tufted bird-dropping, modest sphinx, splendid dagger.

These are among the moths now flying in Vermont.

Let us dispense with moths' general reputation as pests or drab creatures of the night. Ornate as any other insects, including butterflies, plenty of them also fly by day. Yet what I find most compelling is that, more than any other wild things, moths bring to our doorsteps the profound diversity of life on Earth.

Even among those of us who study it, biodiversity is something of an abstraction. We're still not sure how many living things inhabit the planet. A widely cited study puts the total at 8.7 million species, with about 1.2 million to 2 million of them described, named and known to science. So much remains vita incognita.

How might any of us even sense such diversity? Birds get lots of attention. Even so, a dedicated birder in Vermont would need to be out and about much of the year to encounter even half of the state's 388 or so recorded species. Plants aren't as elusive. Yet a botanist would need a few years and many miles to see and identify even 500 of Vermont's plant species.

Moths put those numbers to shame.

In Montpelier alone, biologists and various other moth watchers have photographed more than 700 moth species at lights and on plants within Capital City limits. Farther south, the lepidopterist JoAnne Russo has documented more than 1,000 moth species at and around her home in Rockingham.

To be sure, other insects are more diverse than moths, none more so than beetles. The English polymath J.B.S. Haldane, asked to speculate on the composition of the universe, is reported to have said that if the cosmos is divine in origin, the Creator "has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles."

Yet beetles do not visit us in multitudes, unlike moths with their inordinate fondness for light. During National Moth Week at the end of July, scientists and other curious people around the world beckoned to moths — to enjoy and study them and to learn more about how we're losing them and other insects in the extinction crisis. (Ultraviolet or mercury-vapor lights are best for studying moths, but porch lights also work, all of which we later turn off for the night so that the moths can go about their usual business.)

During my own week of sleep deprivation, I photographed more than 130 different moth species in my Montpelier backyard alone. The Clymene moth is marked like a flying Rorschach test; the hologram moth does indeed cast an ethereal glow; the orange-headed epicallima is a yellow, orange and red fireworks display packed into a centimeter. With bold streaks and big polka dots, the great tiger moth resembles a moth cartoon or a kid's toy.

Most of us will never see for ourselves the shocking diversity of the Great Barrier Reef. No birds of paradise or tropical orchids will leave their rain forests to visit our Vermont backyards. But moths, living not too far away, remind us of a world great and varied — and so undeserving of the mess we have made of it.

All we need, every now and then, is to leave a light on for them.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a field biologist and occasional lecturer in the Field Naturalist Program at the University of Vermont.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Night Life"