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Miller time!

June 17, 2012

If you live in the eastern half of the Midwest, the title of this blog will make you think of an adult beverage.

If you live in the western half of the Midwest, you know I am referring to something other than an adult beverage.

A couple from the eastern United States stopped by my museum not too long ago. They were traveling in a camper, following the California Trail. They were mystified by the extraordinary number of moths that fled from the tire blocks and around the wheel wells each morning.

I was not mystified.

I have gotten to know the habits of Euxoa auxiliaris, AKA miller moth, all too well.

(The immature stage of the miller moth is called an army cutworm. These caterpillars can cause damage to crops and gardens, but the moths are not harmful – just mightily annoying.)

Millers are pains in the you-know-what because as the nocturnal critters migrate from the plains to the mountains each spring, they stash themselves into any hidey-hole they can find at first light. Those hidey-holes often lead them inside buildings, where the big, juicy moths flutter at the windows until they escape or die.

You know when miller season has arrived when you observe birds going berserker at traffic intersections, diving down to the ground during pauses in traffic to snatch up moths emerging from or falling off of the vehicles. (I’ve seen swallows, sparrows, starlings and western kingbirds doing this.)

Some personal close encounters of the miller kind:

I reach into my mailbox and come away with a thumb wet from the guts of a squished moth that tried to hide out in my mail. (Ew!)

Theatergoers experience momentary 3D, as a portion of the screen flies out towards them. Oh, wait! That’s a moth!

I sit down on a toilet seat, and moths come fluttering out from underneath the seat. When I reach for toilet paper, moths tumble out of the dispenser.

Here’s a link to one of Bugman’s blog posts from last year, when he flushed millers out from under a building overhang so he could film them.

My museum has miller troubles, too.

In the past, moths were numerous enough in the building at night to set off the motion detector alarms and summon the police.

This year, there have been a few moths inside the main building, but the bulk of them seem to wind up in the outbuildings on the museum grounds: an 1889 sod house and an 1890 log house. Plenty of hidey-holes, I guess.

A few times early this summer, I opened up the sod house door and had a dozen moths fall onto my head.

Two miller moths, camped out for the day just inside the museum sod house door. “I’m hiding! You can’t see me!”

I frequently have to clear moth carcasses from the windowsills in those buildings.

Sometimes, I get a little help.

Sod house spider hungry! Nomnomnom!

If you want more info about millers, check out this Colorado State U Extension publication, where you can learn such fascinating facts as:

  • Miller moths are in “reproductive diapause” during the summer
  • The moths take a return trip back to the plains in the fall, but so many die over the summer that the return flight is not nearly as noticeable
  • The moths are an important part of the diet of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park
  • The moths are not very susceptible to insecticides
  • To make a miller trap: suspend a light (connected to a GFI receptacle, of course) over a partially filled bucket of soapy water
  • Some noises, like jingling keys or coins, make millers fly erratically (see the link to Bugman’s video above).

Glad that the main flush of millers seems to be over for the season!

Copyright 2012 by Katie Bradshaw

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