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Seven Backyards
Moths...Moths...Moths...and their Habitats...and other stuff....
Several Long-Term Backyard
Studies in the U.S. and Australia

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To Kill Or Not To Kill??
(RE: the debate over collecting vs. observing only)

There is much tiresomely repetitive argument these days, in the various journals and newsletters devoted to Lepidoptera, regarding this topic. If one wishes to seriously advance our knowledge of the moths (or of any other poorly-known insect group), one MUST take at least a few “voucher specimens”, in order to document the notebook-entries and/or other recorded data. I am not referring here to the large and easily identified species, that are unique and have no “look-alike” relatives (such as the American luna moth, for example). Rather, I'm referring to the thousands upon thousands (literally!) of distinct spp. of small to medium-sized (and predominantly gray or brown) geometrids, noctuids, notodontids, and lasiocampids, that occur all over Planet Earth — not to mention the vast array of “Microlepidoptera” families, many of which also contain numerous “look-alike” species of very small moths, that are typically some shade of gray or brown....

In order to obtain accurate identifications, in all of these more “difficult” groups, it is absolutely imperative to have (at the least) two specimens, male and female—ideally, more. In many genera, there can also be look-alike “sibling species”—superficially appearing to be identical at first glance....In order to accurately separate all these distinct (but not obvious) species, the taxonomist must often perform genitalic dissections, and/or other comparisons under a microscope, OR must look very closely for subtle differences on the legs, eyes, or antennae, etc.. These are usually features that CANNOT be captured in even the best photographs of living specimens at rest.

If a living moth has been photographed in its natural resting posture (which, incidentally, is a VERY interesting and worthwhile form of behavioral documentation), the hindwings will, more often than not, be partially or totally hidden beneath the forewings. The only way that the HW's can later be seen and studied, is to have access to a spread specimen! The HW's frequently carry markings and/or colors that are unique, and which will immediately distinguish the specimen-in-question from most of its look-alike relatives. Lacking a photo that fully shows the HW., one could, of course, record a written description of it ....BUT, “one spread specimen is worth a thousand words”!!....

And then there is the additional factor of individual variability—NOT ONLY amongst the adults of a single species, but also (often) there can be green OR brown color-forms of the same species of larva (a commonly encountered phenomenon throughout the geometrids, noctuids, and sphingids, etc.). AND, the adults of certain spp. (in all of the families) can vary tremendously in ground-color and markings or patterns (maculation) on the wings....One must be constantly on the lookout for these degrees of variability! In all such cases, there is simply no way to compare the subtle differences, without an adequate series of excellent preserved specimens, collected specifically with the intention of demonstrating these things! Even in a single locality, individual variation can sometimes be spectacular within a single species....

It is not necessary to fill up unit-after-unit (or drawer-upon-drawer) with long series of the same species; in most instances, just a few (good!) specimens will adequately do the job, for eventually obtaining an accurate identification....It is also desirable to have a few extra specimens on hand, that can be given to the taxonomist who provided the determination (identification). This is a well-understood and common courtesy, to be offered in return for his/her time spent sleuthing on your behalf. Hence, another reason for preserving several specimens of each species encountered....

For those who absolutely do not wish to kill and preserve specimens, be prepared to sometimes be told (truthfully!) that your photo CANNOT be accurately identified down to the species or subspecies level. And you will have to be content with that! (The genus, however, often can be suggested.) There are also many very distinctive species (with no “look-alike siblings”), that are indeed readily identified from merely a photo alone. For such species, identifications will not be difficult, and no specimens will be required....

If identification is of NO great importance to you (or you can be happy with just a family name, and sometimes the genus), then none of the above need be taken into consideration. Do realize, however, that there are those who are employed to sort out the numerous and fascinating “taxonomic tangles” that still exist out there in the REAL world, and that, in order to carry out this kind of work (of advancing our scientific knowledge), they MUST have actual specimens!! It doesn't require a great deal of “common” sense to understand BOTH points of view, agree to differ in approach, and then quit haranguing each other (while wasting valuable space in the journals, repeating OVER-&-OVER the same opposing arguments—neither side hearing OR comprehending the other, like a bunch of hidebound politicians). BOTH approaches have their legitimate followers and reasoning : PERMIT the diversity and quit the bickering!! "Common" sense is sorely needed here....

THERE ARE MANY CATEGORIES OF INSECT-KILLING—some of them far, far worse than the very minimal sampling that is being recommending above! A few examples that immediately come to mind are recorded below:

1. “Clever” man mass-poisoning himself and his environment: Extensive spraying of toxic pesticides over vast areas of crop lands, or entire tracts of forest, while targeting but one pest-species (billions killed, in ALL insect groups, with one or two applications)—not to mention all the birds and OTHER wildlife killed at the same time (amphibians, reptiles, etc., etc., etc.)—“collateral damage”.??? (= insanity)....

2. Multi-billions of insects are being splatted by motor vehicles, every (spring/summer/autumn) day and night (24/7), along all of the nation's vast network of roads and highways, coast-to-coast — not to mention the same kind of vehicular slaughter occurring in all the other countries around the globe as well!! PALTRY COLLECTING FOR SCIENTIFIC STUDY PALES BESIDE THIS SLAUGHTER....

3. Becoming a part of the Food Chain (This is “legitimate slaughter”): Multi-billions (literally tons!) of insects are consumed daily as FOOD, by other insects, spiders, birds, bats, and lizards all over the planet! These will be merely “converted” into droppings, not treasured scientific specimens!


4A. STOMPERS: Thousands of insects are stomped on nightly, by the robotic one-track “trophy-hunters”, while operating their light-sheets and killer-traps, compulsively in search of large/showy species only! The smaller trampled casualties (often in the hundreds) are in addition to the dozens or hundreds of moths actually taken as intended specimens!....[Psychology Dept.—There is an easily observed (and revealing) “scale-of-callousness” here, some individuals being much more oafish and coldly oblivious than others belonging to this Tribe....The level of (feigned) indifference often seems to increase directly in proportion to the number of letters after the name!! Or perhaps because of the latter(?), it derives from the particular individual's imagined level of “professional” status?? Exactly what these readily observed phenomena are telling us, could become the subject a revealing psychological study....For amusing commentary, on several closely related topics, be sure to seek out the classics by STANDEN (1950) and WHEELER (1967). ALL of the underlying motivations, that drive these personalities, were cleverly (and hilariously) exposed to bright light decades ago, by these two astute observers!!] None of this represents anything “new”; it's all just the same old unchanging) callous behavior, continuing on into the present century—a singularly depressing lack of evolution!!
4B. PINCHERS: A particularly odious subset of killers and manglers are the “Reflex-Pinchers”! These cretins (a separate Tribe unto themselves) are mostly to be encountered amongst the net-toting daytime collectors. Butterflies are their usual quarry, and “god-like” callous indifference is the (completely predictable) persona....Every butterfly caught (intended specimen or not) is instantly pinched on the thorax, while still in the net, to stun it so that it can no longer fly—the “reason” always given, to prevent specimen damage due to fluttering inside the net....Then, after pinching, it is scrutinized to see if it's actually a “worthwhile specimen”; if not, then it will just be casually flung to the ground, to flop about (partially squished and crippled), until it is overpowered by ants and slowly taken apart, bit-by-bit (or, if “lucky”, it will be noticed by a bird or lizard and dispatched at once)....Meanwhile, self-important and totally oblivious, the mindless Pincher tramples onward (robot-like) across the wildflower fields, greedily seeking more victims. Don't believe for one minute that this is “the only way to obtain perfect specimens” (as you will undoubtedly be told by the Pincher). It takes just a little more effort (and some skill) to subdue a fluttering specimen inside the folds of the net (or into a jar), without harming it in any way; and thereafter, just to let it fly away, unharmed, IF NOT ACTUALLY WANTED AS A SPECIMEN....
Refs: Lepidoptera Society of America - Statement on Collecting
Seven Backyards



Moths and Memories


Where Are the Specimens Now?


Background and Introduction


About The Backyard Concept

Motivations: Why Publish This Material?

Summarizing How These Projects Evolved

About the Photographs

Bias in Photo Representation

Moth Identifications

Taxonomy & Classification (the names)

About Moth Families & Subfamilies

Some Thoughts About Moth Surveys

Abundance Ratings Defined (8 Categories)

About the Flight Periods

Interpretation of the Flight-Phenograms

Miscellaneous Comments on Black Lights

Peculiarities of Moth Activity

Prime Time = Full-Moon-Plus-Ten

How To Obtain Perfect (Moth) Specimens

To Kill Or Not To Kill??

Beating or Sweeping for Larvae


Miscellaneous Tidbits Dept.