Naturalist and author Jim McCormac (photo courtesy of Jim McCormac)
Ohio Life

Naturalist Jim McCormac on Gardening for Moths

Many gardeners don’t think too deeply about moths. Here’s why naturalist Jim McCormac says they should.

Moths might not be the first things that come to mind when the subject of gardening arises, but that’s exactly what author, photographer and naturalist Jim McCormac wants to change.

The lifelong Ohioan’s own interest in moths was sparked during his time working as a field botanist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. While collecting plant specimens, he found a caterpillar that belonged to a rare species of moth known as Bagisara gulnare.

This chance encounter eventually led to McCormac co-authoring Gardening for Moths: A Regional Guide with fellow naturalist Chelsea Gottfried. With over 600 photographs, most of them taken by McCormac, and profiles on hundreds of moth and plant species, the book serves as a guide to Midwestern gardeners on how to conserve moth populations through native gardening and the importance of doing so.

“Everyone appreciates plants on some level,” McCormac says. “And native plants are what drive the whole train when it comes to conserving our native animal life.”

We talked with McCormac about why he wrote the book, the significance of regionality for moths and how we can better understand these fuzzy, flying creatures.

Your book opens with the quote, “The bottom line is all butterflies are moths, and there’s no such thing as butterflies.” Why did you choose that? 
Butterflies have gotten all the limelight. They’ve gotten 99% of all the press of the lepidoptera, yet moths have been around for much longer. We’re probably approaching 200,000 species of lepidopteran so far described in the world, and 80% to 90% are moths. That’s why we like that quote. It got to the issue that moths are an overwhelmingly larger group, but butterflies get all the good publicity.

Your book is focused on moths in the eastern Midwest. What was significant about this area for moth study?
The flora is very similar throughout the region. Once you start to get out of that range, the plant life starts to shift dramatically, and that’s ultimately what affects moths. Moth caterpillars are really specialized to certain plants. If you went out to the Pacific Northwest or Florida, it would be very different.

How are myths about moths tied to our understanding and opinions of them?
It’s just based in superficialities. I’ve talked to people about this book who don’t know anything about moths, and it opens eyes to how important they are. One of the reasons the introduction of the book is fairly robust is that we knew your average gardener is probably going to look at it and go, “Who cares?” So, we really try and elucidate that case for them.

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