Up Close and Personal With Moths at Sassafras Hill Farm

(Photographs by Ryan Morrill)
Sassafras Hill Farm in Barnegat held its inaugural Moth Night last Thursday, July 30, focusing on educating attendees about the beauty of the Pinelands ecosystem and local moth species.
Owner Tina Mueller hosted the “mothing” event in conjunction with local photographer and moth enthusiast Ann-Marie Woods. After previous attempts to host a moth night at Sassafras Farm were rained out multiple times, Thursday brought perfect weather for the moths. Attendees were able to get an up-close look at a large number of Pinelands moths for about two hours.
“This is a great night tonight because it’s overcast and it’s very humid. Moths really respond well to humidity and overcast conditions when the moon is obscure. So, right now, conditions are just about optimal,” Woods said.
After the sun set, Woods gave a short presentation on moths unique to the Pine Barrens and began the mothing. A mothing, to be completely clear, is an event in which people find and observe moths as a way to appreciate nature, according to Woods.
The night brought out a healthy mix of new and experienced “moth-ers,” as moth enthusiasts call themselves, who were all able to see a wide variety of Pinelands species out in the fields. To attract and display the moths, two large white screens were set up outdoors, with special insect-friendly lights aimed at them.
“We have a 400-watt metal halide lamp and a UV LED rig, and those are in the light meter range – they’re in the 350-nanometer range, which is the spectrum that insects are attracted to,” Woods said.
These lights brought in species including slug moths, skiff moths, imperial moths and Virginia creeper moths. Sphinx moths are some of the fastest flying moth species, while imperial moths can be almost the size of a human hand, according to Woods. The screens were a perfect way for observers and photographers to get a close look at the insects.
“I’ve also had a number of Moth Nights over the last three years, and I found the public really responds well because moths are beautiful, and they have so many shapes, colors and sizes that it’s kind of exciting,” Woods said.
In addition to their variety and beauty, though, moths are an essential part of the local ecosystem and an important food source for birds. Certain types of moths are also nighttime pollinators for fruits, vegetables and flowers, according to Mueller.
“We like moths here,” she said.
Mueller was inspired to host a Moth Night after meeting Woods for the first time as a result of inspecting another local farm with a destructive moth infestation. She was referred to Woods when she was unable to identify the specific moth that was eating the farm’s crops.
“I didn’t know what the moth was. Talk around the neighborhood was Ann-Marie Woods was the woman to talk to about that, that she knows everything about moths. And it’s true!” Mueller said.
At the time, Woods was researching moths at Cornell University. She is a professional photographer who uses her work and her studies to promote insect conservation. After becoming friends with Mueller, Woods realized that Sassafras Hill Farm could be the perfect place to host a mothing. The event was conceived to celebrate National Moth Week, which took place from July 17 to July 25 this year.
Sassafras Farm is an organic and certified naturally grown farm – no pesticides are used on its crops that would harm insects, making it an especially good location for a mothing, Mueller said.
“There are no sprays on our farm that would in any way interfere or affect the moths. And then we have a mix of pasture, we have a mix of woods, we have pollinator swales that go through, and she (Woods) thought this would be an ideal place to do a mothing,” she said.
Additionally, the farm’s location in the Pinelands means that there are many rare moth species around. There are an estimated 1,300 to 1,500 moth species in the Pine Barrens, many of them unique to New Jersey, Woods said.
“They’re uncommon to rare, and this is one of the most heavily studied areas in the United States,” said Woods.
In showcasing the distinctive wildlife of the region, Sassafras Farm hoped to inspire attendees to appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the ecosystem and the way that all creatures – even those as small as moths – play into that ecosystem.
“We never know what the night will bring, but we always hope that it will bring in something that each person can take away with them about the wonders of our natural environment, particularly the Pinelands and the Barnegat Bay estuary system,” said Woods.
Sassafras Hill Farm hopes to host more Moth Nights in summers to come and to continue to educate Ocean County residents on insect and wildlife conservation going forward.
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