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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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How To Obtain Perfect (Moth) Specimens
I have been asked repeatedly over the decades, to publish something regarding the details of my specimen-spreading techniques. Most of what I do pretty much follows certain older textbook suggestions on this topic, with but a few important exceptions that are rarely (if ever?) discussed. I'LL CONCENTRATE ENTIRELY ON THE LATTER HERE!....

More than half the battle is in the process of conveying delicate and easily ruined specimens from “the field” back to “the lab”, and finally to the setting-board, STILL in their original condition. More damage is typically done by clumsy, crude, or inattentive capturing and transport methods, than by ANY OTHER step(s) in the entire process! And one does not have to be using light-traps, in order to consistently accomplish massive degradation during capture (although, of course, traps do a notorious job of guaranteeing inferior specimens—and vast quantities of them)!!!

Many collectors inflict their first damage (often major!) by lunging at a desired specimen—which is (more often than not) just sitting quietly on a wall—clapping the killing-jar over it, and crudely scraping it downward into the jar. At least 90% of all captures can be made quickly, gently, and entirely without damage, JUST by using the jar lid, OR a flick of the finger alone, while holding the jar directly below (not over) the specimen, and being 100% focused during the instant of capture (requires only a little practice to become adept at this)....

Capturing larger moths into a jar already containing some small or delicate specimens, is another guaranteed way to degrade (at least some of) the specimens that are lying dead in the jar. I see this being done all the time. (Usually, I don't say anything!)....Tipping a jar full of dead specimens (as when attempting the next capture) further degrades the already-captured specimens, every single time that they are rolled around inside the jar. (NEVER hand your collecting-jar to someone who is clearly ignorant of this fact!!—or, who thinks that it “doesn't matter”, because it most assuredly does!!)

Overcharged ethyl acetate killing jars can become a hazard, if they are allowed to “sweat” (moisture condensing inside on the glass). This can result in the transfer of an entire “wing-print” (or part thereof), when a moth flutters up against the steamy glass during capture. A quick puff of air, blown into the jar just prior to use, will instantly eliminate this (occasional) hazard. Allowing specimens (or the jars they are in) to rattle or bounce about during transit (as, when travelling over a rough back road) guarantees still MORE degradation!....By the time you finally get home, you will be lucky to extract any specimens from your jars that are of half the quality that you originally SAW at the moment of capture!....And NO, stuffing them all into separate glassine envelopes, wings forced up over their backs (butterfly-style), with the unique thoracic/abdominal “tufting” (so often present in noctuids), thereby rubbed off or otherwise ruined, is no “solution” to the above problems at all! It merely becomes additional (time-consuming) make-work, with its own (in-built!) unique forms of degradation!.... FIELD-PINNING is the only way to go, when on trips—later to “relax” and spread the (pre-pinned) specimens at home. Freshly field-pinned specimens have the added advantage of (mostly) “welding” to the pins. Dried (papered) specimens, that are later relaxed and then pinned, produce a huge percentage of “spinners” on the pins, leading in turn to more (unnecessary) busy-work—the need to glue each one of them to their pins, if wishing to overcome the “spinner” annoyance....

Careful handling of the killing-jar at all times (no lapses in attention), UNTIL its safe arrival at the preparation-table, is really almost all that is needed to obtain mostly beautiful specimens, fully as perfect as when they were first seen, PROVIDED that you are ALSO prepared to take your time (and care) during the final step—the actual setting or spreading of the specimens! If SPEED is your only consideration, then some further degradation can certainly be expected during this final step as well. Setting specimens perfectly is a slow and painstaking process which cannot be rushed—IF one has beautiful specimens as one of the objectives....

There are certain “trade-offs” (time vs. extra care and effort) at every stage of the operation, from step one (the initial capture and subsequent handling), to the final steps (pinning and spreading of the specimens). Most textbooks place too much emphasis on merely describing the basic equipment and techniques, and rarely ever mention any of the topics to which I have just devoted five paragraphs above!! PERMIT ALL of these factors into your awareness, throughout the entire process, and watch the QUALITY of your spread specimens steadily improve!....Always make a point of carefully noting (and remembering!) the condition of the various specimens, when they were first seen prior to capture, and then critique yourself (ruthlessly!) if they look any less excellent upon removal from the setting-boards!!! If there has been ANY degradation, try to figure out where (in the sequence of steps) it probably occurred, and then plan to avoid repeating that same mistake in the future....IT'S ALL ABOUT AWARENESS, at every step along the way!

Many variations in types of setting-boards (wood vs. plastic; pins with paper vs. threads or glass slides) can produce excellent specimens. SOME, however, do it much more easily and consistently than others. It is just a matter of trying them all, to find out which method suits you the best, and yields exactly the results that you are seeking. Over the decades I've tried them all, and have always returned to slightly uptilted and soft-but-firm wooden boards, combined with tough but see-thru tracing vellum (Post's "PTM Vellum"), and No.3 insect pins (old style, with the overly-sharp tips), for holding down the tracing-paper strips against the wooden boards; the paper should be stretched tightly across the (positioned) wings, and then pinned down closely all around. ONLY # 000, 00 or 0 pins are ever used for moving and positioning the wings (objective: least-visible holes made in the wings). The antennae are usually positioned (and held) by carefully placed # 1 pins—again, the old type, (with very sharp tips) work best. This step is usually omitted altogether by the speedsters. (In all of the above, I am referring to the usual medium-sized or smaller noctuids, geometrids, and their kin—NOT to the very largest moths, nor to the “Micros”!) Several of my oldest setting boards (soft white pine) were bought from Ward's Natural Science Establishment, of Rochester, N.Y., way back in 1953, and they are still doing an excellent job today, six decades later! ....A little sanding with the finest emery-paper, every few years, has been the only required maintenance; this removes the minute slivers that are eventually created, due to hundreds of pinnings upon the same small areas of wooden surface.

For ecological survey work, where kill-all traps are typically employed, quantity (not quality), is the main consideration—the primary objective being to come up with a “profile” of the (moth) fauna for a given locality (and as quickly as possible)....Obviously, the foregoing “quality-discussion” will be of little or NO interest to most of these researchers. If the specimens can just be identified, that's considered “acceptable”....But, if not (due to really severe degradation), then what's the point of the exercise???? “Common” sense needs to enter this picture—hopefully, somewhere near the beginning of any survey project (!!)....

For the average “back-yarder”, top-class specimen quality can be easily included as a goal, right along with the gathering of data and the accumulation of photographs. It is with this group in mind that I have detailed all of the above, hoping that they can become motivated to embrace SPECIMEN-QUALITY right from the outset of any small or local study. There is NO reason why this cannot be the case, in most situations. It is primarily a matter of awareness and inclination — and, of course, the time that's available. BUT, in order to obtain the latter, you may very well have to “cut” somewhere else, on that ever-escalating LIST of (imagined) “needs”, with which we are constantly bombarded, by the relentless techno-hucksters that now infest nearly every corner of the “civilized” world!....(Are we having “fun”, yet???)....
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.