Ivy Creek experts offer tips on after-dark bug hunting

Mashed bananas, a flashlight, and a sheet? Yep—those are the tools you’ll need to get up close and personal with some nocturnal summer insects. File photo. Mashed bananas, a flashlight, and a sheet? Yep—those are the tools you’ll need to get up close and personal with some nocturnal summer insects. File photo.

Last week, two volunteer naturalists offered visitors to the Ivy Creek Natural Area’s Education Center a new take on local nightlife. In an evening lecture at the preserve off Earlysville Road, Ivy Creek Education Programs Coordinator Bruce Gatling-Austin and volunteer guide and Master Naturalist Rachel Bush shared some illuminating facts about local nocturnal insects, and shared some tips on how to get up close and personal with some fascinating bugs.

Flickering fireflies

Bush offered some insights fireflies, explaining that worldwide, there are some 2,000 species of the beetles. Only a handful of those species can be seen on the East Coast.

The reason for their surprisingly complex light show? They’re talking to potential mates. Bush explained that the widespread species Photinus pyralis, the common eastern firefly, is the one we see here in the early evening, and it’s easy to recognize the cruising males by the fact that they flash their yellow-green light about every six seconds on the upswing of their wave-like flight pattern.

Flightless females, watching and waiting from tall grasses and on shrub and tree branches, will wait two seconds, then flash for one second in response. A male will respond to a female’s well-timed come-hithers, orienting toward her and flashing until they meet.

How to attract them: Why just catch fireflies, when you can call them? The insects love tall native grass meadows near rivers and ponds, so consider leaving some of your lawn long and adding a water feature to attract them. As dusk falls, grab a penlight or tiny LED flashlight and head outside to make like a lightning bug. When you spot a male, stand still and time your flashes to his just as a female would—two seconds after you see him blink, flash your light for a full second. Repeat, and see how many fireflies you can fool.

Moth magic 

Our most common fireflies party early—they’re most active around dusk—but stick around outside a little later and you’ll be treated to the sight of another group of night insects.

Moths may sometimes take a backseat to their colorful butterfly relatives, said Gatling-Austin, but you’re missing out if you overlook them. They’re a hugely diverse group of insects, with 11,000 species in North America alone. And while they often sport a drab palette, their patterns can be spectacular.

Some of the biggest beauties—sphinx moths the size of a man’s hand, pale green luna moths with long, trailing wings—live very brief lives of only about a week as adults, and many don’t even eat during that time.

How to attract them: Some moths do love a good feast, and Gatling-Austin explained you can coax a variety of species to a central spot by blending up some “moth bait”—mashed old bananas, fruit juice, beer, or another fragrant, fermenting mix —and painting it on a few tree trunks. Check the site nightly to see who’s discovered your buffet.

For a more immediate lure, spread out a white sheet immediately in front a very bright light. A blacklight works best, but a powerful porch light is a good substitute. After an hour or two, you’ll have lots of night visitors to observe, moths among them.

More after-dark programs are in the works at Ivy Creek. Come for a star party at 8:45pm Friday, July 12, when volunteers will point out bright stars, planets, and nebulae. And at 7pm Monday and Wednesday, August 26 and 28, join a member of the Monticello Bird Club to watch the acrobatics of migrating nighthawks.