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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

What's So Great About Moths? Schlitz Audubon Has The Answer

Andrea Merimee
Imperial Moth

Wednesday, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center will run its first-ever moth identification night and will add its results to a national database.

Actually, counts are going on this week around the globe! It's National Moth Week.

Credit Susan Bence
Brooke Gilley at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

In Milwaukee, Brooke Gilley has taken on the moth counting mission at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. If anyone can engender warm fuzzy feelings about moths, it’s Gilley.

Her fascination began at age six, while growing up in South Milwaukee. She and her dad found a big mysterious “something” on a neighbor’s bushes.

“I said what is that thing on the hedge dad? And he cut if off the hedge and I put it in my bug bottle,” Gilley said.

Gilley took her treasure into her room that night.  The next morning, she heard a strange flapping noise.

“It woke me up and I thought, what is that. It was a cecropia moth that had emerged out of its cocoon,” she explained.

The cecropia is the largest – and we mean gigantic - moth species found in North America.

“If you can imagine this thing as big as your hand flapping around in this container. Once its wings were dry, we let it go. But it was just such a cool thing to experience,” Gilley said.

By age 11, Gilley was volunteering at the Wehr Nature Center, where she started teaching people about creatures such as snakes and turtles.

“Live animals have this unique opportunity to bridge gaps between people. I saw that happening and I thought that was the most awesome thing in the world, so that’s what made me interested in becoming a naturalist,” she said.

Gilley amassed knowledge, degrees and work experience in places like western Kentucky.

Then last summer she joined Schlitz Audubon Nature Center as a naturalist. Gilley was just settling in when she happened on a butterfly rarely found in Wisconsin.

Credit Brooke Gilley
Gilley snapped this photo of the butterfly rarely identified in Wisconsin.

“I saw this butterfly just off of the trail. Very distinct white fringe on the hind wing and there’s only one duskywing that has and that’s the funereal. And I’m like, oh my god, is this what I think it is! Because I’ve never seen one in the wild before.” She added, “ I happened to have my camera with me and I thought, I have got to get a picture of this!”

Gilley harnessed that enthusiasm to launch the center’s first butterfly count earlier this summer and now this week’s moth tally.

It requires special preparation. Many moths are nocturnal so Gilley will be setting up black lights to attract them. “As well as bait, it’s this fermented mix that we paint the trees with,” she said.

Credit Brooke Gilley
Luna Moth

Gilley is eager to dispel myths about moths – such as, they’re just drab brown things. “A lot of them have very amazing coloring,” she said.

Over 12,000 species flutter about North America.

“We think of them as just eating our wool sweaters, and getting into our cornmeal, our pantry moths and being agricultural pests, but they actually do a lot for us. Moths provide a lot of food for other animals,” Gilley said.

Songbirds pluck them up during the caterpillar stage to feed their young. Bats feast on those that reach full mothhood.

“Not only that, a lot of our moths are fantastic pollinators,” Gilley said.

She will share the findings of tonight’s nocturnal moth adventure with a North American database

But Gilley wants volunteers to develop more than a tally sheet. “The moth night is kind of an opportunity for them to come and help us, and collect information for this site, but also to go home and put on their porch light and take pictures and send them in. So that’s what we’re going to try to do is teach them, hey, you can do this in your own backyard. It’s not just for the scientists,” she said.

When dusk falls Wednesday evening, Gilley will test her philosophy on whoever shows up for moth night.

“Nature is awesome, you never know what you’re going to see, you never know what you’re going to find, like the moth emerging from the cocoon,” she said.

Did she win you over?

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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