As excellent as the references available in electronic media are these days, they just don’t work very well when you’re standing by a blacklit sheet, or are mothing in a park away from easy access to a computer. The printed references that currently exist for North American moths lack the ease of use and/or thoroughness of online resources, but any book in the field is better than none at all when you’re puzzling over the identity of something you’ve caught.
I also found, when I was first starting out, that settling down in my armchair with a hot drink and perusing the plates in the field guide gave me an edge when I was out in the field and trying to identify what had come to my light. It’s a satisfying feeling to see something on your sheet and recognize it immediately as something you had seen in the field guide when you were flipping through, or perhaps even to know its name.
A few of these may be harder to find than others, so by ordering your copy early you’ll make sure you have it in hand for the start of mothing season in March or April!
A Field Guide to Moths Eastern North America – Charles V. Covell; Virginia Museum of Natural History. For a long time this was the reference to moths of North America, as a member of the Peterson Field Guide series. Although it was retired from the series some years ago, the author found a new home for it with the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and it is still available through them. The book has good information on all the common macromoth species (micromoths, on the other hand, are woefully undercovered, as they are in most guides). The plates are of spread specimens (trickier to identify live moths from), and only about half of them are in colour, with the drabber species presented in black-and-white, but it’s the most complete field guide currently on the market for eastern moths.
Moths of Western North America – Jerry A. Powell and Paul A. Opler; University of California Press, due out in May 2009. Up till now there hasn’t been a field guide to the moths of the west. This book covers some 2,500 species, including 25% of each and every family of moths, including the ittybitty micromoths. More reference than specifically field guide, this book has a wealth of information beyond just identification. Unfortunately, this also means the book is a bit pricier than the average field guide. However, if you order through the publisher before April 30, you can get the book at a 20% discount by entering a promotional code [09m5991]. The website doesn’t indicate whether the photos are of spread specimens or live individuals.
Les papillons du Québec – Louis Handfield; Broquet. Although labeled a guide to Québec, this book would actually be applicable to much of the northeast. It is written in French, but the species account includes Hodges numbers and scientific names, as well as both French and English common names. The plate series is of spread specimens, and are only labeled with Hodges numbers, but the photos are clear and fairly easy to discern field marks from. The book covers primarily the macromoths, though some micros are also included in the plates. There are two versions, one scientific and one popular reference, so make note of which you are buying.
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America – Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Although a guide to all insect families, the Kaufman insect guide provides a good snapshot of the many different groups of moths, illustrating many of the most common or eye-catching. One of the best things about this guide, however, are that the photos are of live moths, not spreads. The book also has a couple of pages on micromoths.
Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity – Stephen A. Marshall; Firefly Books. Another full-coverage book on insects across North America, this thick reference also has an excellent section on moths. Much of the book discusses (as the title suggests) the natural history and diversity of insects, but there is a large section of photos of live moths, including micromoths, that is useful for identification.
Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard – John Himmelman; Down East Books. Although not a field guide per se, this book discusses the life history of moths, their importance in nature, and their connection to humans. It also provides information on how to attract moths, where and when to see them, and tips on photographing them.
Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths – Paul A. Opler, Roger Tory Peterson, Amy Bartlett Wright; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As the title implies, this is just an introductory guide with examples from the many different species, but without going into much depth. It’s a handy little guide for carrying around, and not bad for the price. It does cover many of the most common species, including the drab little brown guys, but you won’t find it very helpful for serious identification.
The Golden Guide to Butterflies and Moths – Robert T. Mitchell, Herbert S. Zim, Andre Durenceau; St. Martin’s Press. Similar to the Peterson First Guide, this field guide is small and covers just the most common species of both groups of Lepidoptera. However, it is a good reference for the price.
The Moth Book; A Popular Guide To A Knowledge Of The Moths Of North America – W.J. Holland; Ehrsam Press. Originally published in 1968 and reprinted again last year, this book is one of the originals on moth identification and information. Although a bit dated and with older photographs, it is still a useful reference for mothing.
Many governments and entomological societies also publish their own checklists and reference guides to the moths of their jurisdictions. Try contacting your local entomological group to see if they know of additional references that may be useful for your area.
Moth’ers, are there printed references that you particularly like and that I’ve missed highlighting here? Leave a comment to let me know!