The State We’re In: ‘Moth-ers’ On The Hunt

Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

You may not notice moths, except when they’re fluttering around a porch light on a summer night or swarming around the sweaters in your closet. But these mainly nocturnal butterfly cousins are definitely worth a look!

New Jersey is home to approximately 2,000 moth species, with intriguing names like Beautiful Wood Nymph, Green Marvel and Azalea Sphinx. Some moths are smaller than a pinkie fingernail and others are larger than a fist. Wing patterns range from dazzling geometrics to absolute camouflage.

Moths have a new following among nature observers who appreciate their subtle beauty, their role in the food chain … and even their potential as a barometer of ecological health.

A number of New Jersey organizations have held naturalist-led “moth nights” this summer, particularly in conjunction with National Moth Week in late July. These events use a backlit screen to attract an amazing diversity of moths for close-up observation.

“It always blows people away, the variety of moths that we get,” says Blaine Rothauser, a biologist, naturalist and photographer who has led several moth nights this summer. “People say, ‘You’re kidding me! These are in my yard at night?’ ”

Io Moth on pine (photo by Blaine Rothauser)

Io Moth on pine (photo by Blaine Rothauser)

Moths make up 80 percent of the order Lepidoptera, which also includes butterflies. Moths pollinate plants and serve as food for New Jersey’s songbirds.

Rothauser admits to being obsessed by them. He’s conducting a statewide moth census, and has spent 250 nights over the past two years luring moths with a sodium vapor light and a screen made from a white dropcloth. He is looking at moths at 21 locations across the state, from the Kittatinny Ridge in the north to the Delaware Bayshore in the south.

Rothauser believes that charting the locations of moths may provide valuable clues about the ecological health of a particular site.

He explains that some moths are “generalists” whose caterpillars feed on a wide variety of plants in preparation for their metamorphosis into winged creatures. Other moth caterpillars are “specialists,” feeding on only one or two specific plants. For instance, the Pandora Sphinx feeds only on grape plants, while the Eyed Paectes won’t eat anything but poison ivy!

Rothauser’s theory is that if a moth count shows a balance of generalists and specialists, the surrounding land likely has diverse plant life. On the other hand, if a count reveals nothing but generalists, a native plan restoration project may be in order.

Rothauser hopes to publish his findings in a scientific journal. Meanwhile, he’s spending many evenings with a light and screen, recording the moths that visit and occasionally spotting a moth never before seen in that place.

Moth watching is a great hobby because it can be done anywhere. “Anyone could do it in their backyard and get a decent variety of moths on an August night,” said Rothauser.

It’s easy to be a “moth-er” – as many moth aficionados call themselves. Just set up a white sheet and a bright light outdoors. Sodium vapor and mercury vapor bulbs are best because they produce a broad color spectrum.

Choose a warm, still night if possible, although a little wind and cold won’t deter moths. Have a flashlight and field guide handy so you can identify your visitors. To boost moth attendance, some moth-ers put out flowers or sweet bait. One bait recipe calls for mashing together a ripe banana, some brown sugar and a splash of beer!

To learn more about moths, go to the National Moth Week website at To find out more about Rothauser’s moth programs, go to

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

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