By Anna M. Butler
Dr. Janet Mihuc is a biologist who specializes in entomology, which is the study of insects. She is a professor at Paul Smiths College in their Natural Sciences Department where she teaches courses in entomology, aquatic invertebrates, invertebrate zoology, and guides senior students’ research for their capstone projects. For several years she has been building a checklist of the moth species present on Paul Smith’s College lands. She served as the Director of Project Silkmoth, a citizen science project designed to document sightings of giant silk moths in northern New York State. She holds a Doctor of Arts in Biology from the Idaho State University.
National Moth Week is an international citizen science project. It runs July 18-26 this year.
The Adirondack Naturalist: Have you always had an interest in moths? What drew you to them?
Janet Mihuc: I’ve had an interest in insects since high school, but I didn’t start to learn about them seriously until I took a college course.
Moths have so much diversity in terms of color, patterns, shapes, and sizes. I learned I could observe them pretty easily in the environment. I was interested in their variety of patterns and forms.
In 2011, I took a course in Maine at the Eagle Hill Institute which was taught by a lepidopterist [someone who studies butterflies and moths] and got serious about species level identification. By the time I went to that, I was already identifying species on my own.
When I first started learning, it just blew my mind. The cool thing that got me into forests especially was that caterpillars are hugely important to birds. If you have hundreds of forest moth species, each one producing hundreds of caterpillars, you know the majority of those get eaten. They’re a critical food source for woodland birds. For a lot of woodland birds, they are the most important. The relationship between chickadees and caterpillars has been well studied, for example. That’s their role: bird food.
TAN: What kind of research do you do at the VIC?
JM: The Paul Smith’s moth biodiversity study is in its fifth year. I’m trying to see how many moth species we have between the VIC and the Paul Smith’s campus.
When I began this project, I found a couple of moth species checklists—one from central Ontario and one from southern Quebec. I used these as a framework for expected species. These two lists covered between 400 and 700 species of moths. At Paul Smith’s, our total is over 450 in year five. I’m hopeful that I’ll get over 500.
TAN: How do you find the moths?
JM: I use a bucket trap with a battery-powered or electric UV light. I just go and trap around the VIC once a week all summer. I also check the mercury vapor lights—the security lights—at the back of buildings. At the lights that are 10-12 feet up, I can identify moths with close focus binoculars.
July is the peak time for moths. Anytime I trap it’s exciting. There’s always the possibility that I’ll get something I haven’t gotten before. Recently I got fifty species in one night, and four of them were new!
TAN: How could people view or attract moths at home—since so many people are sticking closer to their home base right now?
JM: Just running your porch light all night, you’ll get moths with a regular incandescent bulb. If you can get one, a black light would be more attractive because moths can see UV light. You should check in the morning before the moths heat up in the sun. Just don’t do it every night because smart birds will find the moths and eat them. So run the light on an irregular basis. Or you could check out a local convenient store with a mercury vapor light. Mercury vapor lights give off the UV light that attracts moths. The convenient store lights and streetlights give off unprotected UV light, so you’ll want to be careful. [UV light can be damaging to your eyes. A black light has a protective filter over its UV light, so it would be safer.]
You’ll see a constant turnover of species throughout an entire summer. With several Facebook groups—Moths of Eastern North America, for example—and the Peterson Field Guide to Moths [first published in 2012!], moth identification has become much more accessible to people as a hobby.
TAN: Do you have any plans for National Moth Week?
JM: Not this year with all of the concerns about crowds. But I might submit my data for the week from the moth biodiversity study to the National Moth Week database.
TAN: Do you have a favorite moth? Or a favorite moth right now? Or a favorite group of moths? I know it can be difficult to pick.
JM: I think it would be easiest to pick a favorite group… I like the inchworm moths. They’re the second largest group in this area. They’re smaller. I like small things. They tend to be overlooked, but have really nice patterns.
“National Moth Week celebrates the beauty, life cycles, and habitats of moths. “Moth-ers” of all ages and abilities are encouraged to learn about, observe, and document moths in their backyards, parks, and neighborhoods. National Moth Week is being held, worldwide, during the last full week of July. NMW offers everyone, everywhere a unique opportunity to become a Citizen Scientist and contribute scientific data about moths. Through partnerships with major online biological data depositories, NMW participants can help map moth distribution and provide needed information on other life history aspects around the globe.”
Anna M. Butler is the Butterfly House Manager at the Paul Smith’s College VIC. This column originally appeared in the VIC’s Adirondack Naturalist blog. Photo of luna moth courtesy of PSC VIC.