‘Mothing’: a fun, free nature activity for all ages

One night a few weeks ago, I was watching television in the living room when I heard a rather loud and irregular banging. The sound was coming from outside, near the side of the house. So, being a curious person, I opened the window.

My fiance, Derek, who was sitting on the couch at the time, yelled something like, “Stop! There isn’t a screen.” But it was too late.

In flew what appeared to be a bat.

moths0715-20I jumped back, then pursued the animal until it landed on the tile floor. It wasn’t a bat, it was a large moth.

As I crouched over it, guarding it from my curious dog, Oreo, Derek fetched a Tupperware.

The moth was light brown with pink accents and a big circle of black and yellow (like eyes) on both hind wings.

I placed a Tupperware over it, then slid a piece of paper underneath (a trick all bug catchers know), and carried it out the front door. I then set the Tupperware on the porch, open to the stars, and waited for the moth to emerge.

moths0715-21All of the sudden, it flew up, hit the wall of the house and rebounded onto the front of my sweatshirt, where it clung, content to remain. Derek went back inside with Oreo, and I sat there with the moth. Eventually it flew off, into the night, leaving me with a newfound curiosity about the nocturnal world.

What is ‘mothing’?

First of all, I looked up the word “mothing” in the Urban Dictionary, because sometimes what appears to be a perfectly innocent word ends up meaning something rather disturbing in the world of slang. As it turns out, “mothing” is a slang term. But the Urban Dictionary definition — “creating holes in perfectly acceptable logic” — is quite clever (for once).


One beautiful yellow moth I found in the morning of July 30

However, for the purpose of this blog, the term “mothing” will be used similar to the term “birding.” Mothing, then, is “looking for moths and learning more about them.”

Defined in that way, mothing is a great, low-cost, simple activity for children, one that can open up their eyes to the complexity, beauty and fragility of nature. And if you’re interested in wildlife as much as I am, it’s a fun activity for adults, as well.

All you have to do is leave a light on.

Seriously? I didn't see it at first, but this is a moth!

Seriously? I didn’t see it at first, but this is a moth!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been leaving my porch light on at night when the weather is nice, and it has attracted moths of all shapes and sizes. Some are bright and bold like the big moth that flew into our home, but most of them are masters of disguise, blending into the natural surroundings.

How it works

We’ve all experienced this before. If you leave your porch light on at night, a whole variety of flying insects — including moths — are attracted to the light. But have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Here is the same moth with its wings open.

Here is the same moth with its wings open.

Looking online, there are a lot of different answers to this question, so let’s go with a reliable source: the article “Insects See Light” by Tom Turpin, Professor of Entomology Purdue University. Turpin says that science doesn’t have a definite answer to this “age-old question,” but one theory is based on the fact that insects use ultraviolet light to navigate at night, and that a source of light, such as a light bulb, interferes with the insect’s ability to navigate. That’s why the insect seems to fly aimlessly around a porch light, bumping into walls and the light itself as if it has never flown a day in its life.

Kind of sad, huh? But what’s really cool is that some of these insects decide to settle down and roost on a surface nearby — eventually.


Notice we don’t have a proper outdoor light fixture yet. It’s a new house… we’ll get there.

When to do it

Serious bug hunters will go out in the middle of the night to check their light, but you don’t have to do that to see a variety of moths. I’ve found plenty of moths are still hanging out around the light in the morning, and they’re usually no longer flying around aimlessly, bumping into things.

It’s up to you! But if you are going to go “mothing” at night, seasoned bug hunters suggest that you wear earplugs to keep tiny bugs from flying in your ears.

What you need

I like this one's hair-do

I like this one’s hair-do

People who are seriously interested in seeing a variety of nocturnal insects often use an ultraviolet light source and string up a white sheet or some sort of surface for the bugs to land on. There are also different baits that attract certain species of moths.

However, that’s not necessary. Like I said, mothing can be an inexpensive activity. You can simply turn on a light by your house or shed, and the wall is usually a suitable surface on which many insects will land, especially moths. I say this from experience. I’ve been mothing by simply leaving my porch light on all night, then searching around the light in the morning. Many moths are resting on the cedar shingles of my house. And in the morning, they seem to be in some sort of resting state, so they’re easy to photograph and even gently pick up. However, it’s important to keep in mind that many moths are fragile, and some may irritate your skin or even cause respiratory distress. See the story I wrote on the browntail moth, “Harmful caterpillar abundant this spring, Maine Forest Service warns.”

I thought this was a beetle, but on closer inspection, it has little hairs, like a moth.. hmmm... Sometimes we have to just marvel.

I thought this was a beetle, but on closer inspection, it has little hairs, like a moth.. hmmm… Sometimes we have to just marvel.

The type of light to use

While researching, I also learned that the type of light makes a big difference…

– Red light, for instance, appears to be undetectable to night-active insects, so it’s often used to study those insects because it doesn’t alter their behavior, according to the AgriLife Extension of the Texas A&M University.

– Soft yellow light is only attractive to a few types of insects. In fact, these types of lights are often sold for porch lights because they don’t attract as many insects at night.

Stick moths? Talk about camouflage!

Stick moths? Talk about camouflage!

– Ultraviolet or near-ultraviolet lights, which are usually used in bug zapping devices, are highly attractive to many different kinds of night-flying insects, including moths and some beetles.

That being said, the white light on my porch is attracting plenty of moths.

What moths you’ll see in Maine

Moths and butterflies belong to an order of insects called Lepidoptera, which is derived from the Greek words “lepido” for scale, and “ptera” for wings. And in North America alone, more than 11,000 species of Lepidoptera have been recorded, according to Dr. John Meyer at NC State University.

I haven’t been able to find a complete checklist of moth species for Maine, but a list of 559 moth and butterfly species found in Maine is located at the website “Moths and Butterflies of North America” at www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists?species_type=All&tid=52.

Come on. You know you think its cute.

Come on. You know you think its cute.

And according the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine is home to 120 butterfly species, which means the state has a lot more moths than butterflies.

Now I just got started learning about moths, and I certainly can’t identify them without a lot of help. But from my experience learning to identify birds, I think it’s best to take one species at a time, either by photographing it or by looking at other people’s photographs — then identifying it using a guidebook or online guides.

The same moth opened its wings a bit, and voila! A surprise pop of color!

The same moth opened its wings a bit, and voila! A surprise pop of color!

To see a great variety of moths found in Maine, visit the Project Noah website on moths of Maine, www.projectnoah.org/missions/14030082, where people post photos regularly. It’s a great resource.

More moth photos from Hancock County in July found with just a porch light (Imagine what I’d find with an ultraviolet light setup!):

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.