Monday, September 21, 2009

Moth Collecting

As someone who makes her living (however meager it may be!) as a nature/wildlife artist, I feel that it is important to give back when I can. One of the ways I do this is by doing volunteer work through the DNR's Stewardship program. Mostly the program focuses on removing invasive species, planting native species or collecting seed on area State lands. Unfortunately, most of these work days are on weekends, which is of course when I'm doing shows or local markets, so I am left with having to do my time in the dead of winter. This isn't as bad as it may sound, although I have stayed home on days when the high doesn't reach double digits!

This is why I jumped at the chance to participate in the moth collecting program, which took place at night, which is often the only time I'm free. We were looking for two moth species, both of the Papaipema family, and their host plants:

the sciata, or Culver Root borer,

and the beeriana, or Blazing Star borer.

Both of these moths are of special concern in Michigan, though not legally protected. They live on plants that grow primarily in prairies, and prairie ecosystems are some of the rarest in the state. By catching and identifying these moths, biologists can determine which maintenance methods should be used in those prairies. Fire is an important aspect of prairie health, and the presence of these moths determine how prescribed burns should be carried out.
The crew gathered before sundown and equipment was doled out to be carried to our study site. From left: Bear Track Studio's own Lori Taylor; Lee, Karin and our group leader Lindsay.

The setup involves a white sheet on a frame or hung between two trees, a sodium mercury light (very bright) and a black light. The lights are run by a very pleasantly quiet Honda generator. Once the set up is done we take our seats on either side of the sheet and wait.
Here Paul is watching for newcomers.

The lights attracted all manner of insects and a huge variety of moths, but not yet the ones we were looking for.

This 4-5" long praying mantis was mesmerized by the light. We kept waiting for it to snatch up a bug for a late-night snack but it seemed to only be interested in the bright light.

We were joined too by a katydid, looking very leaf-like, while its relatives serenaded us from the trees.

We did manage to collect three specimens, one that resembled the beeriana and two that looked like the sciata. It will be several months before a positive ID is made on the specimens, but whatever the outcome we will have helped determine the condition of this particular prairie and provided information on how best to protect it.

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