This week is National Moth Week. Why moths? Moths are extremely diverse, with about 160,000 species worldwide, and appear in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Despite this incredible diversity, many moths are not well studied or are underappreciated; sometimes they are even feared. National Moth Week aims to give more attention to these creatures of the night and to encourage citizen scientists to study and document them.
One obstacle to starting out studying moths as an amateur is that they are not as well covered as birds or even butterflies when it comes to field guides and other references for a popular audience. Moths' diversity makes it difficult for any guide to include all of the possible species, even within a limited area like northeastern North America. Here are some useful books on moths in North America.
Charles Covell's Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America has effectively been replaced by the previous guide though it covers a larger area. It uses spread-winged specimens, and some printings have black and white illustrations. The guide has been out of print for a long time, but a reprint is available from the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David Wagner covers common caterpillars of both moths and butterflies. This is a useful starting point for learning about caterpillars.
Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David Wagner, Dale Schweitzer, J. Bolling Sullivan, Richard Reardon provides thorough coverage of caterpillars from the superfamily Noctuoidea. This is primarily for people who already have a pretty deep interest in moths. I reviewed it here.
Moths & Caterpillars of the North Woods by Jim Sogaard has limited coverage, but I found it useful when I was first learning moths.
Le guide des papillons du Québec – Version scientifique by Louis Handfield is a two-volume French language guide for northeastern North America.
Moths of Western North America by Jerry Powell and Paul Opler covers the western region.
Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard by John Himmelman is not a field guide but a popular introduction to moths. It covers how to find and study moths, some aspects of moth biology, interesting lepidopterists, and moths in mythology and popular culture.
Tiger Moths and Woolly Bears: Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution of the Arctiidae, edited by William Conner, is a collection of articles on tiger moth biology.
The Moth Book: A Popular Guide to a Knowledge of the Moths of North America by W.J. Holland is available as a free download from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which hosts a number of older books on Lepidoptera. It is also available from Google Books. The taxonomy is out of date, but it still may be a useful resource.
Because the books available can only cover so much, web resources are essential for confirming identifications and learning more about moths. Here are a few useful ones.
The Moth Photographers Group is probably the single most useful website for studying North American moths. Its plate series has thousands of high quality images, with multiple images for each species, including micromoths. It also provides links to much more information. Before the publication of Beadle and Leckie's guide, this was my main resource for identifying moths, and even now I still use it regularly.
BugGuide maintains guide pages for insects with reference images and text; users may submit photos for identification. The coverage is more uneven than at the Moth Photographers Group.
Pacific Northwest Moths covers 1,200 species of moths with species accounts and an interactive key for identification.
Butterflies and Moths of North America has species profiles and checklists.
Lepidoptera Barcode of Life is building a DNA barcode library of positively identified moth specimens. Images of moths in their database can be viewed on their website. Mark Dreiling is a major contributor of specimens.
National Moth Week has instructions for finding moths and links to many other resources, including where to submit data for moth observations.
Discover Life has a simple moth protocol for obtaining more useful data.
Finally, for those in my home county, Todd Dreyer has created a collection of beautiful photographs of moths in Middlesex County, New Jersey.