Natural Perspectives: The moth-er of all trips

Vic and I are really enjoying our new hobby of mothing. And it isn't just about drinking wine with friends while sitting outdoors on a warm summer night. Sometimes actual moths are involved.

This past Thursday in Silverado Canyon, there was no wine at all. Just some fascinating moths, beetles, bugs, mantids and even some spiders. You really never know what you're going to get. You set up a blacklight against a white sheet, sit in a folding camp chair and wait to see what comes.

I enjoy this new hobby because I like taking photographs of interesting things, and because I'm learning a lot about the world of insects in the process.

Larry Shaw, director of operations at Orange County Vector Control District, is a professional entomologist who sets up the lights along with Gary Meredith, a committed moth-er, and "Bug Bob" Allen, author and expert on local flowers and insects. Vic and I are learning from the best.

Vic is picking up some good knowledge that he can use in his biology and natural history classes. I'm getting photos that he plans to use in his classes. And of course, it's always fun to watch grown men crawling on the ground, assuming crazy positions as they try to get the perfect shot of some new moth, beetle or bug.

For my money, the prettiest insect of the evening was a golden-eyed lacewing. This translucent insect was as delicate and as lacy-looking as its name sounds. With its pink abdomen, tan and pink striped thorax and captivating greenish-gold eyes, it was stunning. Well, as stunning as a skinny something only a half-inch long can be.

Lacewings prey upon aphids and other garden pests. As you probably know, aphids are tiny insects that suck the life out of everything from roses to rutabagas. Aphids are scourges that nobody wants in their gardens.

I'm thrilled when I see a lacewing in the garden, because I know that its larvae will feed voraciously on any aphids they find. Adult lacewings enjoy nectar from sunflowers, coreopsis, cosmos and dill, so I will plant more of those in my garden next year in hope of attracting more lacewings.

The most unusual moth of the evening was one in the plume moth family (Pterophoridae). This group of moths has oddly shaped, skinny wings that are about as long as, or longer than, the body. When they land, they hold their wings out straight at right angles to their bodies, looking like landed airplanes. Gary said that there are only about six people in the world who can identify the plume moths by species, and none of them were with us.

I am not good at insect taxonomy. In fact, I had it so messed up that Vic had to rewrite this section for me.

I know that insects are in a taxonomic phylum called arthropods, which includes lobsters, crabs and spiders. Phyla are broken down into classes. Insects constitute the class Insecta. Classes are further divided into orders.

If I can just put an insect into its correct taxonomic order, I'm happy. For example, butterflies and moths are in the order Lepidoptera. Wasps are in the order Hymenoptera. The status of my current knowledge is "this is a moth, this is a wasp, this is a beetle," etc. But I'm learning.

Once in a while, I can recognize that an insect is a member of a particular family. For example, I recognized the ichneumon wasp that came to the light by its oddly arched abdomen. (Ichneumon wasps are in the family Ichneumonidae within the order Hymenoptera, says Vic.)

These wasps are parasitic, laying their larvae on other insects. Some ichneumon wasps prey on flies and beetles and have been used as biological control agents. So don't swat ichneumon wasps. They don't sting people, and they help control many insects that we consider pests.

I'd love to show you a photo of an ichneumon wasp, but stupid me, I forgot to charge my camera battery before heading up the canyon. My battery died early in the evening. I got a few good shots before it gave up the ghost, but I missed getting pictures of the wolf spider, the praying mantis and the huge Dobsonfly that we found. My photo collection from the evening was limited to a green stinkbug, a June beetle, a click beetle, the golden-eyed lacewing, the plume moth and several other moths.

As I collect photos of night insects, I look them up on BugGuide.net to advance my knowledge of the insect world. For example, I've seen green stinkbugs in my garden, usually on my tomatoes, but didn't know if they were pests or pals. These shield-shaped, lime-green bugs are the size of my thumbnail with heavy bodies. After photographing one on our mothing outing, I looked it up. Turns out they will suck the sap out of anything green. They have sharp mouthparts that will pierce leaves, flowers, fruit and stems of a wide variety of plants.

Although birds will eat them, I plan to squish any stinkbugs that I find in my garden in the future. And then I'll probably learn why they are called stinkbugs. Hmmm. Maybe I need a plan B for stinkbug control.

Each foray into the night woods with our mothing friends brings us new species to see, photograph and learn about. Next time, I'll bring a spare camera battery.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at Lmurrayphd@aol.com.

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