Methods for tracking down Lepidopterans to explore through photography
Story and photographs by Dave Huth
I photograph creatures and their environments as a way of exploring and understanding the beauty and complexity of the living world. I began photographing moths and caterpillars after explaining to my then-7-year-old daughter how her grandfather first got me interested in nature. My Dad is an amateur Lepidopterist who introduced me to these weird and secretive creatures when I was about her age.
In that first conversation, my daughter listened intently and replied, “I’m very curious about moths!” So we set out to find some to study together.
Moths are shy and skilled at hiding, so it’s often easier to attract them to where humans can see them rather than looking under every leaf and twig to find them in their natural habitats. An easy and time-honored method of drawing them out of hiding is to take advantage of their night-time instincts for navigating darkness by seeking out bright lights (historically, the moon and stars).
We’ve all seen moths and other night flying insects drawn to porch lights and street lamps, so hanging a white sheet and shining a bright light on it will often entice a passing moth to flutter nearby and land.
When we first began our interest in moths, my daughter and I hastily constructed one of these light attractors by hanging a white sheet over the railing of our back porch, and tying a board above it to which was affixed a cheap fluorescent light fixture. We called this our “Moth Magnet.” We’ve spent each summer for the past 3 years switching it on at dusk to draw beautiful and fascinating insects out of the surrounding trees and yards of our rural neighborhood.
My daughter became skilled at gently coaxing moths onto her fingers, without grasping or disturbing their sensitive wings, in order to bring them in for closer observation. Meanwhile I practiced techniques for photographing them on white or black backgrounds in order to document their amazing details of shape and color.
Other animals visit our Moth Magnet, such as beetles and wasps, as well as spiders, frogs, and other predators that seem to be looking for easy meals of the critters attracted to the light.
In the past, we had to set up the Moth Magnet each evening, and then bring it inside every morning, keeping careful watch on the weather forecast because rain would short out and damage the light fixture. However, this year I constructed a makeshift rain-proof covering out of scrap wood and old roofing shingles, making it a semi-permanent structure throughout the summer months.
Now age 10, my daughter is still “curious about moths,” and checks our Moth magnet first thing each morning (and after dark when it’s not a school night) to see what new passing visitors have stopped by and hung around for a meet-and-greet. I continue to research and try out new techniques of documenting the insects that appear. We’ve come to rely on this simple but effective technique for inviting animals that live cryptically in the surrounding environment to make themselves known to us for a brief time.