A recent BBC report details how the lockdowns imposed since last year have led to a spurt in backyard moth spotting in the UK. Moth researchers, it says, were “heartened” by this new-found interest. Moth sightings were up by about a third, with many counties even recording new species in their areas.
On 17 July, citizen scientists and moth enthusiasts around the world will have the chance to scan their own backyards for moths. For it will mark the start of National Moth Week (NMW) 2021, a global citizen science initiative now into its 10th year. The event, on till 25 July, will offer everyone a chance to contribute scientific data on moths, their diversity and distribution.
“The idea was to let people see fascinating nighttime nature near their homes. Making it a global citizen science project has the same goal of showing people nature at night, teaching them about the ecological importance as well as the beauty of moths, and hopefully making them think about conservation and being environmentally responsible,” says Liti Haramaty, an NMW co-founder and a founding member of the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission, the US-based non-profit that organises the NMW.
For the fact that moths are important biomarkers of climate change and global biodiversity is often forgotten. Frequently overshadowed by butterflies, moths play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance. Scientists estimate there are easily 150,000-500,000 species globally, and more than 12,000 in India. Moths are key pollinators of night-blooming flowers, garden plants and food crops, says Pritha Dey, a moth researcher and the event’s country coordinator for India. Both adult moths and their caterpillars are an important food source for bats, frogs, birds and some other insects, she explains.
“Moths are widespread and found in different types of habitats and are sensitive to habitat alterations, and are thus good bio-indicators. Monitoring their numbers and ranges over a period of time can provide clues to changes in our own environment due to pesticides, air pollution and climate change,” she says.
India started taking part in the NMW in 2013. “Initially, we had only a handful of events planned. But over the years India became the most active country, only after the US, where the activity originated,” says Florida-based Vijay Barve, an NMW team member and founder of the DiversityIndia citizen science portal. “Last year, we had over 200 events registered from India, with good participation from college students. More than 8,000 new records (observations) were posted on (the citizen science platform) iNaturalist alone during the National Moth Week last year,” Barve explains on email.
Dey says she is targeting at least one registration from each state to ensure more diverse participation. Pamphlets on the event have been translated into a host of Indian languages, including Telugu, Tamil, Marathi and Malayalam.
Once you register on the NMW website, you can record your observations on any of three major citizen science portals in India—the India Biodiversity Portal, Moths of India and iNaturalist. “If you are observing a moth, you can post it to any of these three portals. While the NMW is the main organising body for this initiative, we encourage people to submit their observations to all these portals,” Dey says on the phone.
Spotting a moth is easy. Most species are nocturnal. According to the event’s website, you can leave your porch light on and check after dark, since moths are attracted to sources of light. Professional researchers often use proper light traps to record their observations.
Haramaty says data on moths continues to be insufficient; undoubtedly, many species are waiting to be discovered in this race to document a natural world that is changing due to human activity. “Most people don’t realise that nature does not go to sleep at night, and when searching for nighttime nature, moths are easy to find and see,” says Haramaty. “All you have to do is leave a light on.”