Little Things with Wings: A Delightfully Close Look at the Hidden Beauty of Common Moths and Butterflies

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
My fascination with moths began last summer when I stumbled upon a stunning Polyphemus Moth on my back porch. This giant silkworm moth had tinfoil-like spots on its wings, a fur-covered back and enormous feathery antennae.
My next great find was a Pale Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, perched just outside the newsroom door. It was the first opportunity I had to study the long, coiled, tongue-like proboscis of a butterfly closely and to see the velvety covering of scales in deep black and rich, creamy white in magnified detail.

Together, those great winged beasts opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed outside of picture books and wildlife television shows. And there they were, on the doorstep of my own little world and in my own community.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. Three moths, all commonly seen in our area in the daytime. The white moth is a Yellow Woollybear, the black moth with white spots is a Six-spotted Forester, and the black and red beauty is a Cinnabar Moth. The easiest way to determine whether a colorful day-flying insect is a moth or a butterfly is to look at the antennae. Butterflies carry clubs at the end of their antennae, moth antennae either taper to the end or are feathery like that of the Woollybear.

As amazing as those great moments of discovery were, they pale in comparison to the series of little moments I have enjoyed since. Chasing after butterflies and studying moths close up, discovering the little details that makes each and every one special, has become nearly an obsession.
Yes, since then it has been the dusky or pale butterflies and the common, everyday day-flying and light bulb-attracted moths that have held my fascination.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. The Cabbage White butterfly is a pest to gardeners of brassica such as broccoli or cabbage and to the casual observer this butterfly seems a common sort, but if you take the time to get a closer look you can see the delicate yellow coloring of the underwings, the intensely yellow-tipped clubs of the antennae, and the speckled bird's egg green of their eyes.

Surprisingly Attractive and Helpful Moths
Each and every moth I have studied has something about it that makes it not only interesting, but beautiful.
Moths that look like dull, washed-out common whites can carry a sprinkling of gold dust on their wings. Some have a feathery edge to their wings; others carry an elaborate lacy edge.
Moths with fur-covered shoulders — some cut in precise, sculpted peaks, others are worn as ermine stoles — are my favorites. The variety seems endless.
Each moth face is unique, from long snouted moths to bug-eyed monsters to delicate countenances holding looks of wide-eyed innocence.
One of my favorite moths is a day-flying moth: the Cinnabar Moth.
He looks like a pretty butterfly with his bold black and red coloring, but this winged creature is actually an evil-eradicating, heroic moth of momentous biological proportion as he helps destroy the evil Tansy Ragwort weed.
Tansy ragwort flowers throughout the summer and grows on roadsides, in pastures, fields and cleared forested areas, at low and mid elevations. Ragwort is toxic, and can be lethal to cattle and horse and these toxic properties remain in cut plants found in hay.
(If you see tansy ragwort weed, pull it, bag it — don’t compost it — and throw it in the garbage.)
Both larvae and mature moths feed on tansy plants. The adult moths consume the nectar of the flowers, the larvae feast on the foliage and stems.
The larvae of the Cinnabar Moth can consume large amounts of the tansy ragwort alkaloids (the poison) without a problem. In fact, the alkaloids are actually beneficial to the Cinnabar Moths, because as they absorb alkaloids, they also become a bitter bite and predators leave them alone.
To learn more about the moths of the Pacific Northwest, visit the new moth website at http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/. Over 1,200 moth species are listed on this site with information, distribution maps and high quality photographs.

Chasing Butterflies
I have long ago given up chasing the magnificent Western Tiger Swallowtail down for a photograph. That butterfly seems to carry twin engines of turbo power and I haven’t found one yet that will stop long enough to pose for a pretty picture.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. The Common Skipper gets its name from their characteristically fast and darting flight pattern. Their proportionally smaller wings and stout bodies give them a moth-like look, but the clubbed antennae tips mark them as members of the butterfly world.

For a while I tried spotting the swallowtail larva in my travels, but since the pupae look almost exactly like bird droppings I was “seeing” them everywhere — so I gave that up too.
My favorite butterflies are a mostly overlooked little fellow, the skipper. Skippers look like a cross between a moth and a butterfly with their large, stout bodies and smaller wings. When at rest, skippers keep their forewings usually angled upwards and their hindwings spread out like airplane wings. They rarely fold them up completely.
If you, like me, lack the speed or agility to chase after butterflies, your best bet is to find a garden full of flowers and take a seat. Sooner or later you’ll be rewarded with the gift of a butterfly flyby.
To learn more about butterflies on the internet, try the Gardens with Wings website, www.gardenswithwings.com, or the North American Butterfly Association, www.naba.org.

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website The (Almost) Daily News (almostdailynews.com), find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason – The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.