Keep the lights on for National Moth Week

From July 19 to 27, stay out late and photograph moths to help scientists discover new species

Male Luna Moth

Not all moths are boring and brown. This luna moth, found all over the United States, is one North America’s biggest. See if you can spot one for National Moth Week.

Megan McCarty/Wikimedia Commons

Moths may just seem like drab versions of butterflies. But some can be stunningly beautiful — and all moths play an important role in our environment. From July 19 to July 27, you can take advantage of the Northern Hemisphere’s long summer nights to help scientists learn more about these animals as part of National Moth Week.

Scientists estimate that there are more than 150,000 species of moths. Some fly during the day. Others come out only at night. All play an important role in our ecosystems. “Some moths are pollinators, and help plants make fruits and seeds,” explains Liti Haramaty. “Moths are also food for birds, bats, reptiles and other creatures.” Haramaty is a marine scientist at Rutgers University in Piscataway Township, N.J. Even though her research takes place in the ocean, she loves moths. That’s why she helped found National Moth Week.

It’s easy to take part. Just spot some moths. Since light will attract these insects at night, Haramaty says “they’ll find you if you only leave your porch light on.” If you want to attract more species, try painting some “moth bait” on a tree near the light. Gwen Pearson, an entomologist — or someone who studies insects — has a recipe for that bait on her blogabout the event. The recipe involves alcohol, so make sure you have an adult with you as you cook it up.   

Once you’ve sighted a telltale flutter, take out your camera and snap a photo. You can then upload the image to any of the sites listed on the National Moth Week webpage, or to its Facebook page or Flickr group. Make sure to include information on where you took the photo and when.

Scientists will be able to identify the moth. They can use details of where you saw it to find out more about its range. You might even discover a new species. “No one really knows how many species are flying out there,” Haramaty says. “There are also many species that we know exist, but we don’t know much about how they live or where they are found.”

The weeklong moth reporting event isn’t restricted to U.S. participants. The website says it has used the term “national” to refer to “whatever nation you’re in.” So far, 39 countries have organized public or private moth-viewing events. You can set up your own mothing event by flicking the switch for your porch light. If people ask why, explain that it’s for a good cause: science. 

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Power Words

entomology  The scientific study of insects. One who does this is an entomologist.

marine  Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

marine biologist  A scientist who studies creatures that live in ocean water, from bacteria and shellfish to kelp and whales.

pollinate  To transport male reproductive cells — pollen — to female parts of a flower. This allows fertilization, the first step in plant reproduction.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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