Search Nature Watch

Monday, September 26, 2016

Discovering Blacklighting

A large Polyphemus Silkmoth, Antheraea polyphemus, is always a 
welcome visitor.

Lepidoptera is the order of insects that includes both butterflies and moths.  While over 180,000 species of these insects have been identified worldwide, recent estimates suggest that this order may have more species than previously thought, and is among the four most speciose orders, along with Hymenoptera (sawflies, wasps, bees, & ants), Diptera (true flies, mosquitoes, gnats, & midges), and Coleoptera (beetles).  Of the approximately 180,000 known Lepidoptera species, some 160,000 are moths, with nearly 11,000 of them found in the United States, and many are yet to be described.

The Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis, is another silkmoth that may 
come to a blacklight in Central Texas.

Carolina Sphinx, 
Manduca sexta

Small Heterocampa Moth, 
Heterocampa subrotata

With such huge numbers and such a diversity of species, how does one go about studying moths? A good place to start is while knowing that most moths are creatures of the night, they are also attracted to light.  The reason for this behavior is unknown, although one theory is that moths use a form of celestial navigation called transverse orientation.  They attempt to maintain a constant angular relationship to a bright celestial light, like the moon.  But since the moon is so far away, and the angle change is negligible, the moth appears to travel in a straight line.  This theory is tested when moths fly near much closer sources of light, such as a porch light or a campfire.  The angle to the light source changes constantly as the moth flies by, so the moth instinctively attempts to correct it by turning toward the light, thereby producing its erratic flight.

Cellar Melipotis, 
Melipotis cellaris

Giant Leopard Moth, 
Hypercompe scribonia

White Palpita Moth
Stemorrhages costata

Cisthene unifasc
Melonworm Moth, 
Diaphania hyalinat

Paler Diacme Moth, 
Diacme elealis
Eggplant Leafroller Moth, 
Lineodes integra

Ragweed Plume Moth, 
Adaina ambrosiae
Swag-lined Wave, 
Scopula umbilicata
Southern Emerald Moth, 
Synchlora frondaria

One way for the moth to keep a constant angle to a stationary light source is by becoming stationary itself, effectively being ‘trapped’ by the light rather than ‘attracted’ to it.  Those interested in studying moths have taken advantage of this fact, and have developed a method called blacklighting to attract and photograph moths.  The first step is to set up a light source, and either an ultraviolet light (also known as a blacklight) or a mercury vapor  light can be used. Mercury vapor is now the preferred source, as it provides a different spectrum of light than a blacklight, although a blacklight emits a greater spectrum of light.  Moths can see waves of light that humans cannot, so providing them with different spectrums will generally produce the greatest response. The light is carefully hung or positioned in front a vertical white sheet, which the light bounces off to produce a big, concentrated, glowing mass, while also providing a safe surface for the moths to land.

The blacklighting setup is positioned out of the wind and typically near a boundary between wooded and open areas.  The light is turned on at dusk and left on all night, as different species of moths are most active at different times.  After taking the desired photographs with a digital SLR with a macro lens and flash, the light is turned off and the sheet is given a vigorous shake to scatter the remaining moths.  After all that was done to ‘capture’ them with light for observation and photography, it would be a shame for them to become easy  quarry for insect-eating birds or other predators!   

Another opportunistic predator at a blacklight is this Mediterranean Gecko, which 
has captured an Underwing moth.