Celebrate National Moth Week by photographing moths to help scientists predict and manage moth populations.
Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!
In 1991 John Pickering (everyone calls him Pick) switched from doing agriculture and health work to the one thing that had been his original motivation for pursuing a PhD in Biology at Harvard University—biodiversity. Born in the UK, he grew up in the English countryside, and was drawn to nature. By the age of six, he had built an insect zoo for wooly bears and ballbugs, and a few years later he had been converted to the collectors’ “culture of death”: catch it, kill it, pin it, put it in a museum. Before long he was running Malaise insect traps from Canada to Panama, which is an efficient way of filling collection cabinets and freezers full of dead insects. The first step in this process was to throw away the by-catch—moths. Little did John know that his love for nature would ultimately lead him to develop something as unusual as the Moth Party.
“I got really interested in these Malaise traps,” says Pick. “We had them in Maryland, Tennesse, North Carolina, and Georgia amongst others, and at the time we published a paper about something called the natural experiment.” A natural experiment has multiple sites, and if some sites get a rainstorm and other sites don’t, scientists can use that to tease out what they are monitoring. Understanding the potential of large-scale impacts, such as a polar vortex or climate change, on biological systems is not easily accomplished. It’s just not pragmatic to perform random experiments at the state or national level, and then also replicate them to either confirm or remove certain influences. Scientists will often perform what they call ‘pseudo-replication’ to take care of this. Mothing, in contrast uses natural field experiments—taking advantage of droughts or urban heat islands for example, to study such occurrences. And it’s very simple.
Pick says, “We photograph moths at lights before dawn every night—I have been doing this with only one interruption, when I suffered a heart attack I was out for four days—to identify species, document how communities change seasonally, and what happens over, say a twenty year period in response to changes in weather patterns, land-use, air quality, and other variables.” When three polar vortexes came through last winter for example, two-thirds of the moth population was destroyed. If the team had enough sites they could have confirmed if it was the vortex that killed the moths—only the sites affected by the weather would have demonstrated the same level of deaths.
Mothing participants can rapidly collect and share phenomenal quantities of high-quality data from numerous study sites with modern digital photography and online tools. A regular camera or DSLR is more suitable than a cellphone, although you will be able to photograph what Pick calls macro moths, or the big moths, with a phone camera. By collectively monitoring moth communities, this magic ‘Moth Team’ can take advantage of natural experiments to better understand, predict and manage moth populations and their interactions with other species.
Data in Exchange for Education
Mothing has a long list of scientific goals on their website but Nancy Lowe, the outreach coordinator for Discover Life (the parent organization for Mothing) says, “I am as excited about our education and outreach opportunities as I am about our research results. Mothing’s educational objective is to involve the public in all aspects of the project from hypothesis generation, data collection, identification, analysis, and presentation of results.” Pick says, “You give us data, and we’ll give you an education!” As the next step, Pick, Nancy and the team are currently developing Moth Math to teach students how to analyze real-time moth data. That will lump math, science, natural history and more into one exciting project. In partnership with the Moth Photographers Group that provided 40,000 diagnostic photographs, Discover Life now provides online identification guides to 12,000 moth species customized by U.S. state or by Canadian province or territory. Pick says they hope to work this down to the county level. Together the team has close to 400,000 photographs in their database.
“Moths are exciting,” says Nancy. “They are charismatic creatures, highly diverse, economically important as herbivores in larval stage, as pollinators in adult stage, and as important source of food for migratory songbirds in all stages. Anyone can set up a mothing site without having to travel through a tick-infested field site, they don’t bite, and they come to you!” Their identification using photos is fairly easy, with the exception of a few species. In short, they are a great way to teach natural history and share science with the public.
There is a staggering amount of diversity within the moth family. “The excitement and wonder of the diversity of moths across our study sites is enormous,” says Pick. “At my house we’ve now photographed over 1,100 moth species and counting . This is more species than birds ever recorded in North America!” Most folks, even in urban areas, should expect at least a couple of hundred species to come to their porch lights.
To highlight the importance of moths, National Moth Week was created to engage citizen scientists. This includes summer mothing parties, gardens especially designed to attract moths, and even an effort to light up a white wall at every nature center in the country. Mothing is now encouraging everyone including natural history museums and Audubon chapters to sign up their location as a study site.
 Data for moth species
The Night Stalkers slideshow (Audubon Magazine)
Nancy Lowe, firstname.lastname@example.org
Top center: Rainey Gregg
Right: Tori Staples
Bottom left: John Pickering
Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.