The hunt starts where the parking lot meets the woods. It is well after dusk. Armed with headlamps, flashlights and cellphones, the group pushes into the weeds. Most are biology students, so along the way they point out plants to avoid (wood nettle because it stings) and identify the source of the night’s soundtrack (frogs and cicadas).
They find a spot near the Conestoga River in the Millersville University Biological Preserve to set their trap, a white sheet between two trees. Kevin Faccenda flips on a black UV light.
“We’re basically doing a waiting game,” says the president of the college’s entomology club.
(Click through the slideshow below to see more from the moth hunt.)
In seconds, moths smaller than a dime start to land on the sheet.
While people push to save the bees and create butterfly sanctuaries, there’s less love for moths. Moths, however, are not just insects that eat your old sweaters. They are pollinators and an important food source for bats. Scientists estimate there are 150,000 to 500,000 species of moths, including 11,000 in the U.S. Because they are generally nocturnal, taking a few extra steps can help you to discover moths in the dark.
Leaving a porch light on at night is one of the easiest ways to attract moths, says the citizen scientists behind National Moth Week. Using a light trap with a light and a sheet will attract even more.
For Millersville’s entomology club, this was the first summer field trip. The club got together in the spring but was rained out on another date.
May is a great time to get together because that’s when many midges or small flies emerge, Faccenda says. However, that’s also time for finals.
Because humid nights are good to hunt moths, they decided to venture out on a muggy evening in late July.
“The real jackpot would be to get one of the giant silk moths,” Faccenda says.
Silk moths are tan with purple spots and wingspans of about 6 inches.
They’re not counting every last insect or setting up a funnel trap to trap them all.
“We’re not keeping track for scientific purposes,” Faccenda says. “Whatever shows up, and if it’s cool it’s cool.”
Studies are underway in Pennsylvania to learn more about how moths are affected by the emerald ash borer. The invasive pest has placed 13 moth species at serious risk of extinction, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The caterpillars eat the inner bark of woody plants like ash trees. As the ash borer destroys trees, so goes the host plant for these moths.
Soon, sites with treated ash trees will be surveyed to learn how the moths respond.
Back at Millersville, the moth hunters first identify snout moths and some giggle at the minuscule snouts.
There’s a crane fly (also called daddy longlegs), plus houseflies and mayflies.
“There’s a caddis(fly) with really long antenna,” Faccenda says.
One insect looks like it has shoulder pads. Another one is compared to a Stealth Bomber.
They take a closer look with cellphone flashes and headlights.
They get distracted by a big spider off to the side.
A huge log nearby is covered with insects they try to identify.
One has mandibles and six legs. They decide it’s probably a beetle larvae. Nick Landis, a junior who calls himself a plant and insect nerd, scoops it into a plastic container for his collection, along with a few micro-moths.
“This is pretty exciting stuff,” he says.
Faccenda stuck around after everyone else left the woods. He found what he was looking for: an imperial moth, which is in the giant silkworm family. This one was on the ground just a few feet from the sheet.