Happy May Day! Happy May! Happy Moth-watching season!
I’m thrilled to announce that Charlesbridge Publishing and I have crafted a Moth Ball Starter Pack to help you and your family get to know the moths in your neighborhood. Contents of the prize box include a signed copy of You’re Invited to a Moth Ball, 25 bookmarks to give out at your moth ball, a beginner field guide to butterflies and moths, and … drum roll, please! … your very own insect collecting light. For a chance to win, click on over to the official Moth Ball Starter Pack Giveaway page and complete the form at the bottom of the screen.
(Please note: participants must reside in the continental United States.)
Humans have invented a dizzying variety of light sources and an equally head-spinning language to describe them. I’ll be honest, I find it all very confusing, even after five years of using lights to watch moths! The thing to remember is that any light bulb is capable of attracting moths on a warm summer night. But bulbs that produce light of specific wavelengths, generally those in the ultraviolet range, will attract the most.
Blacklight bulbs, available at almost any local hardware store, are inexpensive and easy to use. They’re also fun because their shine makes white objects glow dramatically; my younger moth watching friends, especially the ones wearing white shirts or socks or headbands, love this. In my experience, however, these blacklight bulbs are not very good at attracting moths. In fact, they’re not that much better than the regular white bulbs already in your porch light socket. When it comes to moths, ultraviolet light sources are truly the way to go.
In the world of bulbs, ultraviolet refers to wavelengths of light that fall between 400 and 10 nm. While light in these wavelengths is mostly invisible to human eyes, it can damage them if overexposed. Moth-watching revelers should never stare at their lights. Look at the moths instead! And if you’ve got really small children at your event, consider providing protective eyewear rated for UV light. (For example, these.)
Ultraviolet light sources come in an array of types, shapes, sizes and strengths, and they seem to have different names at different vendors. A good place to start your search is companies that cater to bug enthusiasts, like Bioquip.com. I bought their AC Night Collecting Light years ago; it’s a glass tube in a protective sheath that glows purple, includes light in the UV range, and plugs into a standard US light socket. The moths around me seem to like it a lot.
In my experience, however, mercury vapor lamps are the realest of the moth-friendly lighting deals. Professional entomologists and serious moth-watchers spend big money on mercury vapor lamp traps, but this sort of equipment is well beyond the needs of the casual backyard moth watcher. I get by with a mercury vapor bulb purchased at the local pet store, designed to provide basking heat for exotic pets. It’s very important that you have a lamp base that is designed to work with the bulb you select. Like other bulbs, mercury vapor bulbs come in a variety of wattages, and you must select a base that can support that wattage. I have a 160-watt Mercury Vapor Globe from Solar Brite (similar to this one), and I purchased a Porcelain Wire Lamp base from Exo Terra (similar to this one) that can support bulbs up to 250 watts. Conveniently, this wire lamp base has a clipping mechanism that lets me attach the base/bulb combination virtually anywhere, making light station set up easy and portable.
From what I’ve read, the amount of mercury in mercury vapor bulbs is on par with that found in energy efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and much less than that found in watch batteries, mercury thermometers, or even dental fillings. There is no danger of mercury exposure while using the bulb, unless it’s dropped and broken. Even then, manufacturers recommend the broken bulb be carefully cleaned up, secured in plastic, and disposed of in the regular trash. (If your town has the option, a hazardous waste facility would likely take it, too.) As with any of the equipment described here, read the packaging that comes with the product and follow the instructions carefully.
Which moths show up at your lights depends on the lights you choose, where you live, and what time of year it is. Most moths prefer warm weather, which is why summer is the best time for moth-watching. (That said, I found a moth—a half-wing (Phigalia titea)—at my lights in central Massachusetts on March 10 this year! It’s pictured above.) Surrounding habitat will impact the moths you see, too. If there are places near you where moths can thrive, chances are good that some of these moths will visit your light setup after dark.
If you are going to the trouble of sorting out a light source and staying up late to see who it attracts, you owe it to yourself to have a good field guide on hand. I recommend David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie’s Peterson Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Consider supporting local bookstores by purchasing it here. And here are a couple field guide options geared more toward children.
Connecting with other moth watchers is a great way to further your learning and get help with moth identification. There are moth groups on social media platforms (for example, the 13-thousand strong Facebook group called Mothing and Moth-watching; smaller regional groups exist in most places, too) and on the internet (for example, Moth Photographers Group housed at Mississippi State University); seek them out for advice and guidance.
Don’t forget that each July, moth enthusiasts worldwide celebrate Moth Week (July 18-26, 2020), making that a great time to find moth-watching events at nature centers near you. Visit the event website for details.
People often ask me why I am so adamant about buying books from independent booksellers. The answer is simple: because they are owned by our neighbors and they invest in our communities. But the next time someone asks me to elaborate on this, I’m going to tell the story of how my seventh children’s book was scheduled to publish in the spring of 2020, how I’d lined up three months of book launch events—at my local libraries, local wildlife sanctuaries, local science centers, and local bookstores—and how every single one of those events was (rightly) cancelled because of a global pandemic. I’ll explain how I wrote to my local independent bookseller, Rich Collins at Root and Press, LLC in Worcester, MA, to cancel my event in his store. And then I’ll tell them how Rich helped me design a plan to give my book a special launch day, pandemic and all.
This, my friends, is why I believe, heart and soul, in indie booksellers. They are here for us, with books and inspiration and, when necessary, moral support. That other online bookseller you hear about constantly? Not so much.
Root & Press has created a bookshelf for my book, YOU’RE INVITED TO A MOTH BALL, on Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that shares its profits with community bookstores. Like the ones in my community. Like the one in your community.
Look, I know there are more important things going on in the world today than the release of my children’s books about moths. But I also know that we are going to get through this pandemic by supporting one another, and the way Root & Press has committed to support me, and I them, is one small and beautiful example of that.
Nature heals. I believe this. And I’ve written a book—illustrated with absolutely stunning photographs by my talented collaborator, Ellen Harasimowicz—that we hope will inspire kids to get outside and look around. At moths, of all things! But we believe this looking can be, in its small way, a healing.
So, tomorrow, April 7, our new children’s book will be released into this world. I’m immensely excited to share it with you, despite everything. If you decide you’d like a copy—for yourself, for a kid you know, for a library you love—I hope you’ll buy it from Rich at Root & Press, using the link below. If you feel inclined to share my love of independent booksellers, please share the link with your friends.
EDITED TO ADD: If you are local to Worcester, MA, you can order directly from Root & Press by calling (978) 870-5429. They are offering curbside pickup at 623 Chandler Street in Worcester, MA, and will even deliver to local addresses!
The other night I had some friends over to look for moths. (What? You’ve never done that? I think once you read the book Ellen Harasimowicz and I are making about it, you will want to!*)
Anyway, we were moth-ing and were thrilled when three luna moths showed up at once. A friend and moth expert, Teá Kesting-Handly, pointed out that one of these lunas was not only female, but very worn in the wings. This is a good indication that she has been an adult long enough to have mated. Teá picked her up of the sheet she was hanging on and said, “Take her inside!”
“Inside my house?” I asked, a little surprised.
“Well, if you put her gently in a paper bag and leave her on the counter overnight. she might lay eggs on the inside of the bag. In the morning, you can set her free … and if there are eggs, you can raise them.”
Here’s the rest of the story …
Come to think of it, this is the beginning of a story, isn’t it? Stay tuned!
* For sneak peak images and behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the moth book this summer, check out my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. You’re Invited to a Moth Ball, written by me and illustrated with photographs by Ellen, is coming from Charlesbridge Publishing in 2020.