The ethics of mothing

One night years ago, in a park in Florida, I met a wonderful couple, Carol Wolf and her husband, Herb. They introduced me to the joys of mothing, the practice of attracting moths to suspended sheets with ultraviolet lights at night, and photographing them. This can get quite exciting, especially when a new, or unusually beautiful, species turns up. By bedtime, usually very late, hundreds of different moths can be seen and photographed. This time investment amounts to a small fraction of the total; organizing the photos and identifying them takes a very long time, for me at least. Recently, I’ve started posting to iNaturalist, and this takes yet more time (although it makes identifying them easier and quicker), and sharing the knowledge more broadly likely does some good.

This way of observing has the advantage of being benign, at least in theory. The moths come, sit, and get photographed and after some seemingly random time interval may leave. But then I wonder, they’re delicate creatures being drawn into unnatural conditions for what often is a significant percentage of their adult lives. All is not as harmless it seems at first glance, and many factors feed into the question: Can I ethically justify my mothing?

All is not as harmless it seems at first glance, and many factors feed into the question: Can I ethically justify my mothing?

Some moths seem to become very passive, and when it is time to take the sheet down they have to be brushed or shaken, sometimes vigorously, off it. Is this perhaps caused by (hopefully temporary) blindness? In any case, I expect that this is not good for them. On the other hand, some keep flying up and down the sheet, seemingly frantically, for some time. Again, I expect this unusual behaviour is not good for them.

Also, they’re not doing what they should be while on the sheet, for instance feeding, mating, or finding a safe place to make it through the coming day. 

Once, I was at a moth sheet being illuminated by some sort of very bright, 450-watt, halogen-type ultraviolet lamp. The sheet’s owner said that one should be careful of too much close exposure to the lamp without goggles because of potential eye damage. What then about the eyes of the moths at the sheet? Do they sustain damage? The same question must be asked about the moths that come to my sheet with its relatively low-powered, 15- to 75-watt, lights. Are the moths’ eyes injured? Further, what damage, if any, is caused by the repetitive electronic flashes?

Predators find their way to the sheet. Years ago, I found two tree frogs on top of it, and I’ve watched daddy longlegs apparently eating moths. A sheet I left up overnight to see what happened (would the moths leave by themselves, for instance?) was being picked clean by two or three small birds in the morning. What a feast! I didn’t do that again. 

When I’m engaged in examining the sheet and photographing the moths, they are flying all around me. Some fly into my hair. Some go down my shirt so that I’ve had to open the bottom for them to escape. Some go behind my glasses or crawl over the camera. I’m afraid none of them benefit, to put it mildly, from this interaction.

As far as I know, wild beings are often in a precarious energy balance. Any extra energy must be devoted to breeding or other essential life activities. What, then, becomes of the moths who are not feeding and may be expending needed energy on the sheet?

What, then, becomes of the moths who are not feeding and may be expending needed energy on the sheet?

Moreover, if one looks carefully where the sheet was in the morning, a few dead moths can often be found on the ground.

I feel that humans have no right to interfere in the lives of other Earthlings for any but vital reasons (the 3rd principle of the Deep Ecology platform). This, to me, has come to include my interactions with moths on mothing nights. Sometimes ‘vital’ can involve research or activities that end up benefiting the species studied. However, I can’t honestly say that this applies to my mothing (although I hope some benefit for the moths may come from my iNaturalist postings).

The Swiss, years ago, enshrined protecting the dignity of living beings in their constitution. Subsequently, two reports were published about what this could mean in relation to plants and animals. Unfortunately, the animal report only specifically covered vertebrates. But the principles from both reports seem to imply to me that what happens in mothing likely demeans the dignity of moths.

The problems encompass more than just moths. A myriad other beings are attracted to the sheet. Dozens and dozens of 2-mm-and-up beetles come, as do hundreds of equally tiny (but beautiful) flies. Bigger creatures are present too, such as crane flies, daddy longlegs, caddis flies, shield bugs, flies, spiders, and tree frogs as I mentioned above.

Further, the precautionary and reverse onus principles apply to mothing. One must be extraordinarily careful of the rights of the beings concerned if it seems possible that damage could occur. Can one modify the mothing activity enough to protect the subjects from harm? Is some harm intrinsic to the activity? It is up to the doer to prove beforehand that no harm will result from an activity, rather than subsequent victims having to prove harm? Ensuring absolutely no harm from this practice would be difficult to do.

Can my mothing be ethically justified? I reluctantly conclude that the answer is no, it can’t be so justified unless, perhaps, a great deal of research is done that negates the concerns raised above. Presently, I think it would be unethical for me to continue to engage in this activity.

Read ‘The ethics of mothing’, by Ian Whyte, on the #EarthTongues blog