As any resident of the Finger Lakes Region can tell you, this area is blessed with a stunning diversity of wildlife. Many of us who live in or visit the region are greeted by white-tailed deer, turkeys, great blue heron, and coyotes, among countless others. But often overlooked are the less charismatic species, particularly the invertebrate life and even more so those that dwell in the dark. I’m speaking of course about moths. Moths, in general, get a bad rap. Gypsy moths are an invasive species from Asia, tent caterpillars strip foliage from trees and some members of the Tineola genus eat our clothing. They annoyingly swoop around our faces on summer nights and, compared to their butterfly cousins, aren’t much to look at. Butterflies, as a group, are generally much more appealing. We are captivated by their grace and beauty and associate them with warm summer days and flower-filled gardens. Moths, however, are equally deserving of our attention as any of our other resident wildlife. If you know a few things about them and when to look, you can be treated to some spectacular wildlife-viewing often right under your porch light. Being nocturnal, moths have an air of mystery about them. While we sleep they rule the night sky. Instead of symbols of hot summer days they represent those warm summer nights; often spent camping, sitting around the bonfire or just having a few drinks by the lake.
I first became fascinated by moths as a child living downstate when I saw the rarely-seen and elusive Luna moth. Though common, they only spend one brief week as breeding adults in the heart of summer and to see one is always an awe-inspiring moment. With their gentle pale lime-green coloration spread over their 4” wingspan that tapers off into elongated tips, they truly look like something from a childhood fantasy book. Since then I’ve only seen one other living specimen and unfortunately I have not yet been able to photograph one.
Other beautiful and strange moths abound across this state as well, and, as an adult living in the Finger Lakes Region, I have taken it upon myself to document some of these stunning species. While butterflies number about 157 species in New York State, moths are far more diverse with a staggering 769 species. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, while moths have been flying through our skies for 190 million years, butterflies have only been here for a mere 60 million years. In fact, some scientists consider butterflies nothing more than diurnal moths. Aside from day vs. night, there are other differences between the two groups. Butterflies often have a swollen tip on their antennae and fold their wings together over their backs. Moths have plain or feathery antennae and fold their wings flat over their backs. There are exceptions and it is really a lot more technical than that but those differences are generally good enough for most people.
Seeking out moths is fairly simple; just turn on the outside light during any of the summer months. Everyone knows that moths and other night-dwelling insects congregate around lights. It is as much a part of summer as anything else; moths fluttering around the camp fire, lantern or porch light. The reason they do this all seems due to navigation. Moths orient themselves with the moon; it helps them tell in which direction they’re moving. Often our artificial lights confuse them and end up being brighter than the moon itself and they fly towards that instead. Though a moth flying towards the moon can never reach it, they can obviously reach our lights down here on earth and, as they approach it, their ability to navigate is compromised. Other theories exist as well but the above seems the most plausible. Whatever the case may be, for the sake of the moths it is best to keep the lights out for the majority of the night. Many species have only a short breeding cycle and time is precious.
So what kind of moths can you expect to see on a warm Finger Lakes night? Most will be small and drab but some are truly breathtaking or, at the very least, unique. Among these species is one from perhaps the most charismatic of moth families; the giant silk moth family. The io moths (Automeris io), with their 2.5 to 3.5 inches wingspan, are some of the larger moths you’re likely to encounter. Males have yellow squash-colored forewings while the females are reddish-brown. Their most striking features are the large eyespots on their hind wings, meant to startle predators. I must admit they were startling to me, as well. They tend to fly mostly in the early hours of the night. Females emit pheromones to attract mates. The males then seek them out with their enlarged antennae. The io, like many other species, only has rudimentary mouthparts and does not feed during its breeding cycle.
More common than the io in our region is the Virginia ctenucha. It is smaller, with only a 2-inch wingspan. Though small, they make up for their size with their metallic- blue-colored body, black wings and orange head. Their antennae are long and feathery and overall they have a very smooth and sleek look to them, almost butterfly-like. They can be seen from May into September. Adults feed on flower nectar during the day but, like other moths, they’re easier to spot at night.
A great example of an interesting, but perhaps not quite so attractive, resident is the Beautiful Wood-Nymph. Although the word beautiful is used in the name, this species is easy to overlook as it closely resembles bird droppings. Perhaps not as beautiful as the name suggests, it is an interesting example of natural camouflage and if you see one you’ll certainly take notice. These moths only have a wingspan of about an inch; I guess the size of an average bird dropping. These difficult-to-spot moths can be seen from May through August.
While many moth species employ camouflage, most exhibit coloration much like the tree bark they rest on. Two notable locals include the twin-spot and small-eyed sphinx moths. Both species have mottled coloration in differing hues of grey, black, brown and red and overall their shape and wing configuration resembles dried leaves. Both species also have eye-spots on their hind wings, much like the previously-mentioned io moth.
The last species I’ll mention is another of the giant silk moth family, one of the largest you’re likely to encounter in New York and a relative of the luna moth. I’ve only had the good fortune to meet one individual but it is something I’ll always remember. I first spotted it flapping around outside my window. I had never seen a moth so large and I wanted a closer look, so naturally I let it in. It was a polyphemus moth. At six inches from wingtip to wingtip, it was nearly as large as my hand. Its large bushy antennae gave it away as a male but females can get even larger. Like the luna moth, this species has four transparent spots on its wings, one on each. The hind wings have large purplish eye- spots around the transparent windows. After a brief photo-session I let it go and that encounter remains to this day one of the most profound and intense wildlife encounters I’ve ever had.
It is difficult for me not to go on about the many other species I’ve had the pleasure of observing; strange and beautiful animals that I was able to watch just outside my door. The number of species I’ve seen is countless and I don’t even know what many of them were even as I write this. What I do know is that moths are one part of an intricate web of life that we are also a part of and they’re just as deserving of our admiration as the deer, turkeys, herons, butterflies and other wildlife we’ve had the pleasure to live alongside here in the Finger Lakes Region. So, the next time you’re out at night swatting the bugs away from your face, stop and take a look. You might be surprised at what you see.
by Arthur Masloski