Pondering miller moths and library databases

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Photo from Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service

It was midnight and, weak and weary, I was pondering library databases. To be specific, I wasn’t in the library; I was at home figuring out how to access library databases from my own computer to research what I assumed to be a simple topic—miller moths.

While I perused said databases, nearly napping, suddenly there came a yapping and all because of miller moths flapping, flapping at my daughter’s bedroom door.

Once again, I muttered “Nevermore,” and lugged the vacuum to the upper floor. I did it for the rare and radiant daughter that I adore who shall remain nameless here evermore. (Apologies to Edgar Alan Poe)

After rendering the brief lives of these former Army cutworms even briefer by sucking them up with the vacuum, I returned to my computer. Here is some of what I learned:

Accessing data fact 1—There is no one like a reference librarian to make the researcher’s life easier. I might not have found much at all when I sat down to begin my work at home if I hadn’t previously received a tip about a specific database from a reference librarian who quickly identified NewsBank as a likely resource.

Miller moth tidbit 1—Miller moths panic lots of people. In May 2002, journalist and humorist Rich Tosches penned an article titled “Pesky miller moths can make even grown men cry out in fear,” for Colorado Springs’ newspaper The Gazette. Tosches wrote, “I was driving to the grocery store and the early morning sun was in my eyes, so I lowered the visor. This apparently was the cue—and I’m not kidding about this —for the miller moth who had been sleeping up there to awaken and, after 10,000 years of moth instinct, fly directly into my nose…. Frankly, I hadn’t slapped myself in the face that hard since last Friday morning—when I woke up and realized I was married again.”

Accessing data fact 2—Libraries pay lots of money to subscribe to databases. There are many of these resources, particularly from the big library districts, that can be accessed at home, but you must input your library card number to do so. It may be that the number from your home district card won’t work. You may need to get a card for the district whose resources you want to access. You may also need a PIN number or an “access number” from the library.

Miller moth tidbit 2—Miller moths do not eat clothes. They got their name from the “fine scales that easily rub off when you touch one reminded people of the dusty flour that would cover the clothing of the miller.” That’s what reporter Miles Blumhardt noted in his article “Invasion of monster miller moths” in the Fort Collins Coloradoan on June 9, 1999.

Blumhardt noted that millers “feed off plant nectar and can be more abundant in landscapes with many blooming shrubs and flowers.” (So I’m not the only one who thinks that my flowers look terrific, huh?) He also wrote that aside from reducing outside lighting at night, it is helpful to switch to yellow lights, since the moths prefer white light. And, oh yeah, forget about insecticides. Blumhardt learned that millers “are not susceptible to them.”

Accessing data fact 3—Just because the library you access has lots of databases it doesn’t mean that you will find the information you need in many sources. Almost none of the resources I examined had anything about miller moths. For example, I found nothing in databases of popular magazines. Could this be due to the fact that most of these are published on the East Coast, and millers are western critters?

Miller moth tidbit 3—Ever notice that miller moths come in two waves? The first and most plentiful is in late spring and early summer. The second is in late summer. The early summer moths are headed up to the mountains for vacation dining on wildflowers and flowering shrubs. They return eastward in late summer to lay eggs in the weedy areas of wheat and alfalfa fields in eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. The moths are the grown-up version of army cutworms or Euxoa auxiliaries, which I discovered on the plain old Internet in a paper by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Entomologists Whitney Cranshaw and Frank Peairs.

Accessing data fact 4—I got lucky on the Internet when I found the CSU article, but in general, NewsBank—the tool identified by the reference librarian—proved to be a better resource. It provides stories from 17 Colorado newspapers, and let’s face it there aren’t too many Coloradans that like millers, so that adds up to a lot of news stories about these pesky bugs.

Searching all 17 papers by clicking one link provided 302 results for “miller moths.” But not all were pertinent, and it was unclear why my search words “miller moths” linked to so many obituaries, even ones where no one was named “Miller.” Isn’t it a fact that miller moths only injure crops?

Miller moth tidbit 4—As Kevin Duggan of the Fort Collins Coloradoan wrote last May 29 about street intersections,  “One day all is normal and dull while waiting for a red light to change and the next day swarms of little birds are showing off their moves.”

Duggan pointed out that although the swallows are preying on an abundance of miller moths, scientists don’t know with certainty why the moths occupy the intersections. Six years earlier in The Coloradoan, columnist Kevin Cook printed a reader’s observation that moths hitch rides on cars and, “I have seen over a dozen miller moths emerge from a single car. The somnolent millers tucked about the frame stir when the car starts at intersections.”

Accessing data fact 5—Research is exhausting whether you do it at home or at the library. No, maybe it’s worse at home, because you don’t have anyone helping you. Plus there seem to be more miller moths flying around at home than at libraries.

Miller moth tidbit 5—The worst year for millers that many of us recall was 1991. That was the year that you found them everywhere—inside the branches of pine trees waiting to flock out and spook passers-by, in the display cases at the Natural History Museum, in refrigerators in medical offices on the fifth floor of high rises, inside your rolled up newspaper in the morning, in the bathroom towels, inside the tube on the toilet paper dispenser, inside the toilet rim waiting to shock the bare bottoms of three year old girls. Anyone who lived through it doesn’t need a newspaper article to remind them that there were too…many…millers!

Accessing data fact 6—Reference librarians are some of the nicest people on earth. Get to know them.

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