The butterfly is universally loved, but its close cousin, the moth, is not. You don’t find grade-schoolers knocking on the Halloween door costumed as a moth. Schoolyards are not planted with moth pollinator gardens. One doesn’t ask for moth coloring books.
To the extent that gardeners notice moths, it’s the moth species that are pests, which is usually in their caterpillar stage. The Eastern tent caterpillar, the tomato hornworm, the gypsy moth caterpillar, the fall cankerworm — these pests belong to the darker side of the order Lepidoptera.
But most moths are benign, and some moths are unexpectedly beautiful. Consider Choristostigma, which is the shape of an arrowhead and patterned in yellow and violet, or the chocolate moth, a rich brown with slender beige stripes and a lacy fringe. It’s evocative of a frilly Victorian drape.
Moths are furry in a way that butterflies are not, and the big species have plump bodies, thick, powdery coats and antennae shaped like fossilized ferns. Many people know the swallow-tailed luna moth of spring, a gentle giant with lime-green wings and eyespots. The cecropia moth is even larger — some are six inches across — and patterned like a medieval tapestry.
There is another reason moths are not so well known: They tend to come out at night. While we slumber, dozens of species flit about our gardens, unseen, looking for mates and drawn to light. If you live in or near woodland, your chances of getting more species increase because trees provide food and shelter for the caterpillars.
If you live on a deeply wooded 26-acre tract in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, as Deborah Davis does, you are in moth paradise. You may have to go miles in search of butterflies, but you can trick moths into coming to you.
By day, Davis is a professional gardener, living in Albemarle County near the town of, appropriately, North Garden. By night she is the Pied Piper of moths, drawing them with her song or, more precisely, a cotton sheet strung with UV lights. “One night, I had nine luna moths on the sheet,” she said. There are plenty of other types to see when she examines the cloth in the pre-dawn darkness.
She will gather one that takes her fancy, place it in a jar and put it in the refrigerator for a few hours. Once the moth is chilled and lethargic, she will place it on a piece of paper on the floor near her sliding glass door, photograph it and then release it before it warms enough to fly around her house, a problem in a contemporary abode with a 25-foot ceiling.
The next metamorphosis, so to speak, occurs in Davis’s basement art studio, where the moth’s image is rendered on canvas. Her medium is acrylic, and the paintings are large, 30 inches by 40 inches. The resulting works of art are not the extreme abstraction of nature that Georgia O’Keeffe rendered, but they are not quite scientific illustrations, either. They do, though, reveal the rich patterns and textures of this insect, its pleasing symmetry and forms that border on the baroque.
She shows me one she is working on, a spiny oak-slug moth, which is compact and dark brown with bright-green flashes on the upper wing. Such is the enlargement that a creature that is inconspicuous — this one is just an inch across — is revealed to most of us for the first time. “I like painting them large to give people a look at what’s out there. The perception is that we have the luna and everything else is just a brown little thing,” she said. She uses a calculator and a ruler to scale up the image to give precise placement of such features as wing markings, antennae and legs.
The thing is, once you study moths with the intensity of a painter, the brown little things can become wonderfully colorful. A glimpse at the paintings stacked in her studio offers such insight. Enlarged, the banded tussock moth takes on a reticulated wing pattern, and its thorax is graced with fine turquoise lines. The glorious Habrosyne recalls a fine woven Native American rug. The Virginia creeper sphinx moth looks like a delta-winged aircraft, camouflaged for action. The spiny oakworm moth is a confection in butterscotch and toffee.
The paintings also reveal what some moths share with certain grasshoppers and beetles, that the plain forewings conceal hindwings of extraordinary ornament. One might call them blingwings, and they are no doubt wrapped up in the rituals of mating or, in the case of ones with “eyes,” of not getting eaten.
Such examples include the Anna tiger moth, whose handsome markings, more of the giraffe than the tiger, are upstaged by creamy yellow patches below. The ultronia underwing has a mischievous red-and-black hindwing. The io moth is big but not scary until it exposes huge eyelike markings beneath its upper cape.
Davis, who is 65, studied art in college but didn’t paint for years. The discovery of a dead sphinx moth spurred her to capture its likeness, and that got her hooked. In the winter, when she is not doing her gardening job, she can paint one in a week solid, but at this time of year it might take eight weeks to finish a painting.
“People have really gotten behind monarch butterflies and the honeybee. I just feel moths are pretty important as well,” she said. So far, she’s painted about 30 species — and there may be 3,000 in the woods of Albemarle County. “I’ll have work for the rest of my life,” she said. “There are a lot of moths.”