I picked up the new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by Beadle and Leckie as soon as it came out earlier this year. I’d been anticipating it because I’ve been following Seabrooke Leckie’s blog for several years now. In fact, I was inspired to blog myself by her example.
Moths, which well outnumber the butterflies in the order Lepidoptera, are a subject I know little about. Usually nocturnal, often small and nondescript (Lepidopterans roll their eyes), they are a generally elusive. Most of us probably know them best as those things which batter against lights on summer nights. Now that I’m armed with this book I should do better.
I wanted to test the book out when I first got it, but it was early in the mothing year. Not much flying around. I chose the moth closest to me at the time.
I first identified the Meal moths who hang out in the hallway of my building using the NWF’s Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America by Arthur V. Evans ~ an excellent guide, but necessarily limited, even at 500 pages, in what it can include. For instance, Evans has some 40 pages of moths (c. 120 species), while B&L have 500 pages (c. 1,500 species). Evans is now working on a guide to just our beetles, which is something to anticipate. B&L note that there are around 11,000 species of moths in North America, an impossible number for a field guide, so of course they’ve had to winnow. They’ve done that geographically (sorry, Westerners, Southerners) and to the most common and most eye-catching (a subjective enterprise, but what are you going to do when it comes to the great numbers of insect species? There are no doubt moths that have never been identified).
So I knew they were Meal moths. How would I find them in the Peterson without hitting the index? As it happens there’s no entry for “Meal moth” in the index. Ah, there’s the rub: how do you organize 1,500 species? Hell, how about merely 300 or so species, as in, say, the birds? A friend has asked more than once why all the yellow birds aren’t clumped together, for instance. One of our most preeminent yellow birds is the male American Goldfinch, whose black wings contrast strongly with its butter-yellow body. However, the female isn’t nearly this yellow, and the male isn’t either during the non-breeding months…. Birds are usually done taxonomically, but that means diddly to most of us. However, the more you use a taxonomic field guide, the better at it you get. This moth guide is also taxonomic. When you first use it, that won’t mean much if you’re a novice. But the more you page through it, the better you’ll get.
I opened the book, handily enough, directly to the page with a Meal moth on it. Awesome, a field guide that anticipates my needs! More recently, a friend’s Twitter sent a Flickr link to an “Unknown butterfly” which I was pretty sure was a moth. I paged through, found one I thought appropriate, had second thoughts, paged through some more and found it. Then I noticed the very species was on the book’s cover! An Eight-spotted Forester, a handsome black-winged, white-spotted moth with orange tuffs on the legs. Stylin’! I look forward to some real challenges in the future. The book includes a moth bait recipe — basically a ripe banana, molasses and beer, since not all moths go into the light — that with the addition of yogurt would probably make a pretty good smoothie.
The Eight-spotted Forester — I mean, the thing has orange muffs! –is also a good reminder that while many moths are tan, grey, brown, and/or modestly marked, others are quite spectacular, like the silk moths and tiger moths. All my moths can be seen here.
Here’s one I pulled out of my archives. I didn’t know what it was, besides being an “Emerald.” According to this guide, it’s Synchlora aerata, a Wavy-lined Emerald. Now, that’s a field guide!