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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Things that Flutter in the Valley Night…

mothingWhen I was a young reader (before the “young adult” section appeared in the bookstores), a favorite book of mine was Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. A typical hard knocks tale, Stratton-Porter tells the story of a young girl named Elnora Comstock. The only child of embittered mother Katharine who blamed her daughter for her father’s tragic death (he drowned in quicksand on his way to play fiddle at a local dance the night Elnora was born. Katharine couldn’t be there to rescue him and thus blames her daughter). The Comstocks lived on a small farm adjacent to the great Limberlost Swamp and Forest in rural Indiana. Because of her mother’s cynical attitude—no fun, no frills—Elnora hasn’t much of a childhood to speak of. There is little money in the Comstock household in spite of the fact Katharine owns woods whose valuable timber she staunchly refuses to sell, and the little family lives in near poverty.

A talented young woman hungry for knowledge and an education, Elnora is determined to attend college. Katharine, on the other hand, believes education is just another frill; Elnora’s time and labor could be put to better purpose on the farm, help keep the household afloat. Elnora has her supporters, though. Her neighbors, the Sintons, sympathetic to her harsh home life, believe in the girl. They become her advocates and determined to assist Elnora attain her goals, intercede on her behalf where Katharine is concerned. I admired Elnora for her pluck and optimism, and if I already didn’t have a literary girlfriend in the character of Becky Thatcher, (Oh, how I envied Tom Sawyer…perhaps because his Becky had blonde hair in my illustrated copy of the book), I most certainly would have chosen Elnora.

It was Elnora’s means of funding college, however, that really drew me into the story. A love and curiosity for the natural world attracted her to the insect-rich environment of the Limberlost. By day she collected butterflies and by night exotic moths. She sold her specimens to eager collectors who paid her well for her work. One collector known as The Bird Lady was Elnora’s best moth customer. The rare signature moth The Bird Lady desired was the Imperial moth. If Elnora could capture one, she’d be paid handsomely for the prize. Her quest for the Imperial plays a significant role in the storyline. Whether or not Elnora captures the exotic moth, wins over her mother, raises the funds for college, and finds romance in the process, I’ll leave the book’s future “young adult” readers to discover.

Moths. Those fluttering engines of the night, those nibblers of wool sweaters (first the moth, then the cedar chest), those daredevils of luminescence and flame. Compared to butterfly species, their numbers are legion. Strange bugs, moths. Short-lived for the most part (some species don’t even feed and have no stomachs), they emerge from their cocoons, flutter off  immediately, find a mate. Then they die.

Three years ago a family member gifted me with a moth collecting kit. The setup consists of a nylon sheet of special design, a collapsible metal frame from which to hang it, and a black light. moth sheetThe sheet serves as both light reflector and collecting surface. On warm summer nights I set up the sheet in the backyard, hang the black light from the frame, and wait to see what comes fluttering out of the Valley night. My Pennsylvania friend Ron sends me moths from the east coast. Ron switched out his incandescent porch light for a halogen bulb, and the big moths are drawn to it…well, like “moths to a flame.” Thanks to Ron, I have a half dozen luna moths in my collection.Luna moth The luna is a beautiful, large moth, pale-green with long delicate, swooping tails and antennae like ferns. Perhaps the most familiar of moths, the luna is to the moth world what the Monarch is to the world of butterflies. The luminescent moth that floats gently through the bedroom window of the restless sleeper in the sleep aid ad and glides about the room until the insomniac drifts off to sleep, blissful smile on her face…’is a luna moth. And shades of Elnora Comstock, to my surprise, one of Ron’s shipments included two Imperial moths.Imperial moth

It’s ten o’clock. Although the night is warm, I’m wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. It’s mosquito season and the pond across the road is a mosquito hatchery. My forehead, an inviting landing strip, I’ve slathered with repellent. Face and neck, too…and the backs of my hands. Earlier in the evening I hauled out a lawn chair and a small table. Now I sit in the glow of the black light wearing my headset radio tuned in to the twenty-four hour classical music station listening to “music to moth by.” Beside me on the table perches a flashlight (for close up inspection of bugs) and a fume jar primed with ethyl acetate should a specimen need to be euthanized. An insect net lies across my lap. Bugs have already flocked to the light: a squadron of small water beetles apparently disoriented by the light have lost their way to the pond. Dazed and bewildered, they pepper the apron of the sheet. A pair of honeybees, out past curfew, also cling to the sheet.tiger mothI’m hoping some exotic moth visits the sheet, a tiger moth, perhaps, like the one that turned up on a neighbor’s porch a few years back. Or a sphinx moth with its streamlined body. You just never know…that’s where the fascination lies.



Sphinx mothSuddenly the sheet dimples, a sign some hefty bug has struck it, and a plump ten-lined June bug tumbles to the sheet’s apron, lies there on its back, bristly legs flailing the air. For a full five minutes I watch the beetle saw futilely away at the void. Then something sparked in its tiny beetle brain. As if they were spring-loaded, the wings pop open, and the bug somersaults upright. I pick up the flashlight and go to investigate, direct the beam at the beetle. The June bug is far from a pretty thing. Ominous-looking, prehistoric, even, the most curious spectator would hesitate to pick one up. The beetle looks like a bad scratch waiting to happen. The bug has strange, paddle-like antennae that put me in mind of Groucho Marx’s eyebrows. It took the critter a few moments to realize it now had traction. Then the beetle began to wobble slowly across the apron of the sheet. It moved like a robot built by a child who had, just for fun, decided to make each of the six legs a different length. I watched the bug’s labored progress until it finally reached the end of the sheet, tripped and fell off the edge into the grass, and disappeared into the darkness.

The June bug’s appearance turned out to be the highlight of the evening. A more subdued activity followed in the form of several moths that began to bat and slap at the sheet. Close scrutiny with the flashlight revealed what I initially thought were two different species of moths—the smaller of the two darker than the larger—were actually one and the same. clinging mothsI reached this conclusion when the dark ones (males) lost no time pairing up with the larger beige-colored moths (females) and soon the nylon sheet was host to a love fest of two dozen or more mating pairs (four or five little clumps, however, turned out to be threesomes; I guess they all had stomach enough for that kind of activity). I settled back in the lawn chair and let the moths proceed with their business.

One a.m. The Valley has yielded up nothing exotic tonight. The mosquitoes turned in hours ago. I bask in the blue haze of the black light, yawn a bit, twiddle my thumbs, gaze up at a sky full of stars. A cool night breeze passes; the sheet gently sways. I begin to nod as the moths all the while continue making love in the glow of the black light.moth aftermath

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  1. Your honeybees out past curfew are very likely to have been "Zombees", victims of a new honeybee parasite. This parasitic fly's natural host is the bumble bee. Recently they have been found in honey bees. If you find a honeybee out at night attracted to your porch light, it is very likely they have little fly larvae crawling around in their bodies. If you catch the "zombees: and put them in a ziplock bag, the fly larvae will crawl out in a few days to pupate.

  2. Haven't we beekeepers suffered enough! Seems to me I read somewhere Job was a beekeeper. Interesting comment, Jim. And I've heard about this new threat that causes bees to "fly by night." TMJ