BAY CENTER — Moths get a bad rap. We think of them as flying in through the doors late at night, being pesky and eating our woolen blankets.
As Richard Wilson, owner of Bay Center Farms oysters, and moth enthusist said, “Most people say — ‘oh yeah, moths, they’re brown, they fly at night.’ But that’s not it at all. Their patterns, their subtle colors … they’re beautiful.”
Wilson should know. He’s been examining and collecting moths every morning since 2005 and contributing to a formal moth DNA database since 2009. Wilson has captured and recorded over 400 different types of moths.
“This is a hobby,” he said from his Bay Center office overlooking Willapa Bay, “but I get pretty involved with my hobbies. I started bird watching some years ago but I ran out of birds.”
There is no worry about running out of moths. There are more than 2,000 known moth species in the United States, and Wilson has put Bay Center and Pacific County on the map in terms of the number and variety he has recorded.
The other advantage of studying moths is that Wilson can do it right from his front porch and, as he said, “They’re interesting — they don’t bite, they don’t sting and they don’t make a mess.”
Wilson is a scientist with a PhD in geology and an extensive understanding of zoology and paleontology, so he finds the taxonomy of moths fascinating. “Every night, spring through fall, I capture around 30 or 40 moths, then I might select out three or four to look at more closely,” he said.
His moth traps are simple affairs. One is a white five gallon bucket with a funnel on top and a lamp mounted above. The moths are attracted to the light, bump up against the funnel and slide into the bucket. They are not harmed in this process.
“I’m excited every morning to see what I’ve got in my traps,” he said. “There’s always the chance to find something different. And I’ve recorded several that weren’t known to be here.
“In my collecting, I’ve doubled the known species in our county.”
Wilson is also participating in a worldwide project called Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) that is attempting to record the DNA of all known living creatures [www.boldsystems.org]. He is contributing to the Lepidoptera coding sequence for butterflies and moths, which according to the site is “the second-most diverse order of insects with 160,000 known species and likely as many still awaiting description.” Wilson sends in his unique specimens and their DNA is coded into the database.
Wilson has his own collection of amazing moth photographs posted on flickr [www.tinyurl.com/6amlp3z] and is a participant in the Moth Photographers group hosted online by Mississippi State University [www.tinyurl.com/4cgusty].
After his morning review of traps, selected moths go into small pill bottles in the refrigerator. The rest are released.
“The cold slows them down but it doesn’t hurt them,” Wilson said. He takes the moths out when he’s ready to examine them more closely.
“My goal is to take a close-up photo to see if I have something unique. The macro image works as my microscope for comparison of types. The traditional mounted, dried moth specimin doesn’t have the same vibrancy of color as the live moth. I want to capture as close as I can the natural colors in my photo.”
Wilson’s collecting routine is a pragmatic process of what works. He illustrates by taking out a beautiful Virginian Tiger Moth from the refrigerator and placing it gently on a fine mesh translucent-nylon screen placed over a small numbered tag on graph paper. This creates a color-baseline, gives the moth a unique number and also accurately shows its size.
A thick, clear cross-section of PVC pipe placed around the moth keeps it in place, diffuses the light around it and acts as a rest for the camera lens.
“C’mon,” Wilson says to the warming moth, “wake up now.” He takes a small paint brush to delicately put the moth on its feet for the photo. “I want the moth alive and in a natural pose—not pinned out with its wings spread.”
We marvel over the beauty of the tiny creature. It has black and white stripes on its diminutive legs, a gold running stripe along its abdomen punctuated with black dots. It’s head is feathery and furry.
“Moths have scales that allow them to slip through the air when they’re facing forward. Some of them can travel quite long distances.” He peers at the Virginian Tiger through the lens and Wilson takes a few quick snaps.
“If I find that the moth is unique and a candidate for DNA, then I freeze it. That’s how I kill them. Now that sounds cruel but they’ve basically had their fly and I only take a few of each species,” he said. “Then I’ll send it off with GPS coordinates, date caught and other information. If they [BOLD] think it is unique, a leg will be removed and the DNA sequence determined to derive or indicate the species.”
The World of Moths
Wilson started from scratch learning about moths and training his eye to see small variations in pattern and coloration. The sole purpose of moths is to procreate, to find a mate. Moths are basically the procreative link between generations of caterpillars. As Wilson relates, some of them don’t eat while they are on the search.
“Some don’t even have mouth parts. They are strictly flying out there to find a mate or get mated. And they have tremendous pheromone detection,” he continued. “Some moths can detect the smell of a female up to several kilometers away — that’s from us to across the bay.”
“For some moths, the female doesn’t even fly. She just gets down in the crack of a tree and waits for a male. Then she lays her eggs and dies.”
Wilson started his intensive hobby quite innocently. “We have a porch facing east, with a north and west wall and partial fiberglass roof open to the southeast, and a normal compact fluorescent light. So I’d go out in the morning and notice 10 or 20 different moths. At first I thought, well there can’t be more than 30 or 40 species, but then I started taking photos and finding reference sites to identify specimens.”
There are several other sites that Wilson uses for identifying not only moths but other garden variety bugs. This one might be particularly useful for gardeners looking for pest information. “The BugGuide site is very useful for anyone finding an insect and it is very interactive on getting it identified if a picture can be taken,” he said. The primary site is www.tinyurl.com/m743h.
Geniuses of camouflage
Moths can adapt relatively quickly over generations to new camouflage colors. There is a famous example discovered by Darwin in England that noted peppered moths changing from white to black as soot pollution increased. Moths are some of the world’s best camouflage artists.
“One of my highlights was that I found a peppered moth here — and it’s the same species as the one found in the U.K.,” said Wilson. “In addition, there are moths that look like a twig, some can even mimic bird poop.”
Wilson’s interest in Darwinian adaptation fits nicely with his exploration of moth varieties and the concept of the survival of the fittest. “That’s fascinating to me — with moths you are looking at the product of selection for survival. I enjoy it because it gives me such solid evidence for taxonomy information.”
He speculates that we have such a range of moth species in Pacific County because we have so many colors and textures and types of regional vegetation. But how does a moth know what color it is and how to land on just the exact color match? “Or why are they attracted to light?” he asks. Some posit that moths navigate by the moon and get confused by porch lights. One source speculates that once the moth comes close to a bright light, it may have a hard time leaving since going back into the dark renders it blind for a period of time. But no one knows definitively why.
To know them is to love them
The moth world has a specific language as any unique field of science or technology does. Moths have two paired wings: forewings and hind wings. The wings have a medial reference area, a postmedial line or margin toward the wing tip or terminus, while the antemedial is toward the body. These reference points help the collector determine the sometimes minute differences in color and pattern. Moths are often categorized using “Hodges Numbers,” a taxonomical system of hierarchy.
“Some moths like the Cinnabar don’t taste good to birds [their most common predators] —that’s their survival mechanism. But Cinnabar moths, a beautiful magenta color, eat tansy ragwort and are considered very beneficial to humans.”
You might ask, what is the difference between butterflies and their less popular cousins, the moths? “In general, butterflies have a little bulb on the end of their antennae and they fly during the day. Moths fly at night,” said Wilson and, in true dévotee fashion, he adds, “but butterflies are pretty gaudy — moths have more natural colors.”
“If everybody understood moths, they’d have a better appreciation of them. I had a big One-eyed Sphinx moth [Smerinthus cerisyi] here earlier today. I should have kept him. I could have brought him in here to sit around for the day.”
Wilson also indicates that there is plenty of room for other moth enthusiasts to get in the game. “On the beach side of our county, you could come up with a different set of moths than I am finding here on the bay,” he said. “Moths can vary from Bay Center to Raymond and yet some are the same species found on the east coast or in Europe.”
For Wilson’s hobbyist inquiry he landed on moths and has found a fascinating world that suits his temperament and his inquiring scientific mind. “Moths are highly mobile — they can go up to tremendous heights and ride the currents.”
“There’s not a lot known about a lot of animals. That’s what makes it interesting,” said Wilson. “I think we’ve lost something in this country in terms of the naturalist — there seems to be a general lack of interest by most about the natural environment. We need people who have a curiousity, people with a personal passion for the natural world.”
One thing is certan — there is no question about Dick Wilson’s passion for moths.