Taylor Piephoff smelled of cheap beer, month-old apricots and brown sugar, combined.
Rob Gilson’s cotton shirt held pungent notes of molasses, wrinkled-up peaches and old bananas blackened by the sun.
Two men, two odd concoctions, one common goal: to lure as many moths from the dense, woodsy bike trails of Sherman Branch in University City as they could by night’s end.
“We call it mung. It’s moth bait,” said Piephoff, who works for Mecklenburg County’s health department, but before that for its conservation science branch. That’s where his fascination with moths first took flight.
Each month from spring to late fall, Piephoff and Gilson, a wildlife biologist, volunteer to gather moth specimens for the Center for Biodiversity Studies in Reedy Creek Park. In the past four years, volunteer collections have helped scientists there build a specimen database of nearly 500 varieties of moths.
The location is always different: wet woodlands, open meadows, marshes. Last week Piephoff and Gilson spread the thick gooey batters – homemade recipes they mixed separately – onto the tree trunks at Sherman Branch, eager to attract a few of the more than 10,000 species of moths fluttering throughout North America at any given time.
“There’s a number of reasons to study them,” said Piephoff. “Why are there so many different kinds? What are they doing out here? Some of them are pests. Some of them are an agricultural concern.”
To most others, the moth holds little draw. They’re the butterflies’ hillbilly in-laws; nature’s second fiddles. Some say they’re so homely they only come out at night.
But a growing number of naturalists are beginning to disagree, and this week the nation has decided to stand behind them, declaring July 23-29 the first-ever National Moth Week.
“It’s a proclamation moths will have to share in part with National Bean Month, National Lasagna Day and something called Cheese Sacrifice Purchase Day, but it’s a start,” said Lenny Lampel, natural resources coordinator for Mecklenburg County’s Conservation Science Office.
“The knowledge on moths is just emerging,” said Lampel, who joined forces with Piephoff in 2008 and now searches the county’s 7,000 acres and 21 nature preserves with him. “They’re part of the whole cast of characters out here.”
The collections help researchers discover data about native and invasive species, and the kinds of plants that play host to them.
“It’s valuable information,” said Lampel, especially as Charlotte’s natural landscapes continue to change under a developing urban setting.
When the sun set on Sherman Branch, Piephoff – in a khaki field vest that held a point-and-shoot camera, a mason jar and a copy of “Peterson’s Guide to Moths” – flashed a light up and down the bark of a tall white oak. Two stubby beetles and a confused honeybee crawled along the sticky mung Gilson had painted on the tree earlier.
A moment later, in the pitch black, they watched as a “tearful underwing” moth fluttered by, then touched down in the goo.
Piephoff smiled as he unscrewed the jar’s top.
“Whatever Rob did, it’s working,” he said.
“It’s all up here,” he said as he tapped on his head.