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The remarkable beauty of those ‘Legions of the Night’

“It was an evening long to be remembered,” Jean Henri Fabre wrote of the night “when the Great Peacock Moths came to my house.”
On that morning in early May, having observed the moth coming out of her cocoon, he had caged her under a wire-gauze jar.
At nine in the evening he heard his young son “rushing about, jumping and stamping,” calling “Come quick and see these Moths, big as birds.”
Through a window having accidentally been left open, and though the house was “difficult for them to reach,” 40 of the moths had flown in.
“With a view to wedding,” Fabre wrote, “40 lovers have come to pay their respects to the bride born that morning.”
Larry McDaniel of Johnson City holds out a “welcome” sign for winged night-shift creatures, in the form of a “moth sheet” spread against the side of his house, under its covered porch, illuminated with ultraviolet light.
With a decade-long fascination for insects in the Lepidoptera group — butterflies, skippers, moths — he is studying the last group through photographic recording and identification.
In a presentation at the Roan Mountain Naturalists Rally last September, he described the great variety of moths of our region and the divergences in appearance that distinguish them.
He adds all new-species visitors, three or more in a week’s time during the summer to this photographic collection, available for viewing online.
The tally now stands at 378 verified moth species, with more than hundred species awaiting identification.
Moth species are far more numerous, by approximately 10 to one, than the species of the day-flying butterflies, and correspondingly of great importance for pollination services to hosts of plants and trees.
The collection includes small moths as well as giant hawk and silkworm species; dingy-colored ones and moths with dazzling color and wing patterns.
The antennae of some are outstretched from the head like the longhorn cattle’s while others, furry and spiraling downward cradle the wings.
Some, like the Vestal, are delicate in pure silvery white while others, like the “Confused Woodgrain Moth” show complex interweaving wing patterns of spots and stripes, dark streaks and distinctly edged lines so as to “resemble wood grain.”
The common-name designations are evocative of shape or other characteristics of the fliers so named, as, note, the “Double-Humped Pococera” moth.
Many are informative, see “Iris Borer” and “Leaf Blotch Miner” of the larvae’s habit or source of gaining food.
Some may reflect observers’ enchantment, as the “Festive Midget” perhaps, others darker moods or associations, as in the “Morbid Owlet.”
Some come to the porch light as early in the year as the first February nights, others as late as mid-December.
A remarkable collection of the winged creatures, out between dusk and dawn, some the “pestilences” that can do much damage to crops but many of spectacular beauty unseen by most of us, most of the time.
Mr. McDaniel is a Steele Creek Park naturalist and can be reached, to arrange for showing and educational programs on the moth collection, at 773-9234.