The Art Of Moths

Photos: A new book shines the spotlight on a misunderstood - and often beautiful - insect.

Medicine & Science

October 27, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Joseph Scheer isn't sure when he became obsessed with moths.

It may have been in the mid-1990s when he began running around with a butterfly net at Alfred University in western New York, where he is a print media professor.

Or it may have been a few years earlier, when he began keeping his office windows open with the lights on at night to attract them. Each day, he collected dead moths from his window sill and floor, then put them on a dish on his desk to admire them throughout the day.

"I'd think, `Someday, I have to do something with these things,'" he recalled.

Five years and 15,000 moths later, the 44-year-old graphic artist has found that something: a startling book of digital images and series of expensive, poster prints that turn a long-unappreciated insect into an object of art.

"He's helping people to see what we've been seeing for years in our profession," said Marc Epstein, a lepidopterist at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History who was Scheer's consultant and wrote the introductory essay for Night Visions: The Secret Design of Moths.

Experts say that moths outnumber butterflies 8 to 1 and can be just as beautiful. "There are some really gorgeous moths out there," said George Boettner, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Unfortunately, most of them fly at night, when people can't see them. And they've earned a rep as one of the bad boys of the insect world because some of them kill trees, attack flour bins and destroy clothes. A typical example of bad press was the gypsy moth infestation of the 1980s. As a result, Epstein said, "They tend to be looked at as the dirty stepchildren of the butterfly."

But he and other experts say the reputation may be undeserved. Moths are a diverse bunch - with an estimated 200,000 species worldwide. There are 1,200 types of silk moth alone. Many have six-inch wingspans and are prized by collectors. They also create silk as they spin their cocoons.

Some moths have wing color patterns that mimic wasps. Others have forewings that resemble snakes, and some can detect the squeaks bats use in echo-location.

There's still a lot about moths that scientists don't know, such as why some sport such vivid colors or why they fly toward lights and flames - and wind up being incinerated or zapped in the process.

Epstein said moths probably fly toward lights because most are nocturnal and use the moon as a navigational aid when they search for food and mates. They don't fly directly at the moon, of course, but flutter toward it at angles. And they never get very far into the sky because they're diverted by pheromones or scents from plants, he said.

But if there's a flame or a mercury vapor light nearby, they will sometimes fly toward it at angles and eventually fly into it.

Many questions about moths remain unanswered because they're hard to observe and there's little public interest for funding research. "There's an awful lot of them out there, and most of them you never see because most of them are out at night," said Jacqueline Miller, curator of lepitdoptera at Florida Museum of Natural History in Sarasota.

But some well publicized scientific studies have shed light on their behavior.

Boettner, for example, published a study three years ago showing that a species of fly known as Compsilura concinnata, released to control gypsy and browntail moths, was killing 80 percent of the silk moths in Massachusetts forests.

The study alarmed moth collectors and raised questions about similar campaigns that use one species to attack another that's regarded as a pest. "It makes you wonder what damage we're doing to what's out there when we introduce these biological controls," Boettner said.

In a much-heralded 1953 study, a cantankerous British researcher claimed that the peppered moth helped prove Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest. In sooty neighborhoods around Birmingham, black peppered moths - well camouflaged from birds - had twice the survival rate of their lighter-colored counterparts, Bernard Kettlewell reported.

Evolutionists trumpeted the study as a vindication of Darwin, whose theories were difficult to prove because evolutionary changes generally occur over thousands or millions of years.

But Kettlewell's own research was debunked in the 1970s by Ted Sargent, a University of Massachusetts researcher who noted that moths don't actually rest on colors that match their own.

On less controversial issues, Scheer has become the moth's unofficial ambassador these days. He is a featured speaker before Entomological Society of America; his moth book and posters are part of a traveling art exhibit, and his work has been profiled in The New York Times and National Geographic.

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