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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Late summer is time for the annual explosion of moths. Commentator Sy Montgomery explains why some naturalists are drawn like moths to a flame, to the moths themselves.


CURWOOD: "Oho, my beauty," chortled naturalist W. J. Holland on a summer night back in 1905, "how the eyes glow like spots of fire." Now, by his words you might think Mr. Holland was in the midst of a passionate love affair, and in a way he was. As our commentator Sy Montgomery explains, he was just another naturalist drawn to the flame of a moth on a hot summer night.


MONTGOMERY: The bride is at my window. The penitent on the porch. The darling waits in my back yard keeping company with the Old Maid, the Once-Married, the Relict, or the Inconsolable. These are creatures who come alive on hot summer nights like this. They are the nocturnal passions of naturalists. They are moths. The ancients believed moths were the souls of the dead, possessing ghostly beauty and otherworldly powers. And when it comes to one particular genus of moths, the Underwings, they were right.
A friend, Dave Winter, told me about the Underwings. He used them to lure me to moth appreciation. First, he enchanted me with their names. Sad shadowy names like the Morning Underwing, the Tearful Underwing. Romantic and tragic names like The Bride, The Consort, The Sweetheart. Other Underwings are named after women famous for their lusts or talents: Delilah and Cleopatra, heroines from Shakespeare and Greek goddesses. Mostly female names, you notice, probably because most of the people who named them were men. Men who, one might suspect, were spending too much time in the dark without female companionship.
Ah, but moths provided all the beauty and romance they needed. Plus, a little magic.


MONTGOMERY: Dave told me about the Underwing's secret. At first glance, they look like a piece of tree bark, all drab browns or grays. But on a pair of jet black hind wings hidden beneath the folded Underwings, some species sport crimson bands and white fringe. Others have yellow bands or vibrant pink or dramatic black and white. The colors are a ploy, a surprise these moths unveil the moment before they're about to become a predator's meal. Studies with birds reveal this sudden burst of color literally leaves birds with beaks agape. The moth flies free.

You can find Underwings on trees, where they feed on sap, and even by a porch light. But hard-core moth enthusiasts don't leave things to chance. Dave made his own special brew for these sap-loving moths--fermenting bananas, sugar, and beer. He would smear it on tree bark, and then, with yellow tissue paper over his flashlight, he'd creep up slowly on the nightly feast. The Underwings' flash of unexpected color was worth it all. By the time I met him, Dave had been chasing moths for more than 60 years.
Last year, at about this time, I got the sad news that he had died. I still think about him, though. Especially on late summer nights like this. When moths flutter around the back porch light, when Underwings gather to sip tree sap, I wonder if Dave Winters' winged spirit is among them, reminding us, as he did in life, of nature's uncanny ability to startle and delight.

(Crickets up and under)

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire, and is author of Life's Everyday Mysteries. The price and power of ecological dissent in modern Russia: that story is just ahead on Living on Earth.



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