Ontario's moth maven has mixed feelings about memes

Biologist Seabrooke Leckie has devoted much of her career to moths, documenting the thousands of species living here in Ontario. But with the growing popularity of moth memes, her passion has turned into a punchline — and she's got mixed feelings.

Biologist eager to prove moths more than 'drab, pale brown things that flutter around your lights'

Biologist Seabrooke Leckie has penned several field guides on moths in North America. Her passion has turned into a punchline with the popularity of moth memes — and she's got mixed feelings. (Seabrooke Leckie)

Maybe it's their habit of flying into flames and leaving holes in your clothes, but moths tend to get a bad rap.

Lately though, an eerie close-up of one of the winged insects has really taken off, casting the creatures in a new light — and spawning hundreds of moth memes along the way.

The moth at the centre of the trend is big and brown with beady, glowing eyes. It's perched outside a window, staring longingly at the light within.

On social media, folks are having fun with the image. But it's no laughing matter for Seabrooke Leckie.

The Ontario biologist has devoted much of her career to moths, documenting the thousands of species living in the province and co-authoring two field guides on moths.

She's seen the meme, and she's got mixed feelings. The CBC's Haydn Watters visited Leckie and her moth paraphernalia in Ashton, Ont., on the edge of Ottawa.

Social media's latest craze: moths. CBC's Haydn Watters dug into the trending meme and met Seabrooke Leckie, the writer and moth expert now working on her third field guide to the fuzzy Ontario fliers. 6:39

So, the moth meme...

It's really fun to be seeing that going around and seeing a moth taking the limelight, but at the same time it is the worst possible image. It's such a stereotype of moths.... I wish we were meming a pretty pink moth."

It's really caught people's attention, which is kind of fun, again because people are thinking about it … just having moths be in public perception and the forefront of people's minds, it's kind of fun to see that.… I'll take what I can get.

What is it about moths?

I think it's partly that they haven't been explored the same way birds have. There's so much discovery. There's so much diversity out there.

Pretty much any colour you can imagine, you can find it in moths. And then there's also the convenience aspect. You don't have to go looking for them. They'll come to you just by putting out a light [and a white sheet]. With birds, you have to get up in the morning, and I'm a night owl. Moths are a lot better for my daytime tendencies.

Leckie shows off the light she uses to catch moths. Her favourite type of moth is called the hologram moth, which sports an iridescent green on its back. 'It’s like a hologram, which is why it’s called that.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

What is the public perception of moths?

It's not a very favourable opinion of moths, unfortunately. I would love to be able to change that.

The average person who hasn't had much experience with moths would think of them as either two things. Either they are the drab, pale brown things that flutter around your lights at night, or they are the things that eat holes in your clothes in your closet.

Both are true, but it's only a tiny, tiny portion of the story. There's only a couple of species who eat clothes, for instance.... The moths at night, there are lots of drab brown ones but there's some awesome glorious colours like pinks and greens and purples.

You don't necessarily think of the colours when you see a moth flying around your light.

That's one of my favourite things about the moths, is that you think of them as being just brown little things you encounter, and a lot of them are. But when you actually get to start seeing what comes in your light at night … there's a huge diversity of colours and shapes and sizes, and you can have some moths that are tinier than a grain of rice and some that are bigger than your hand.

You don't even see this in butterflies. There's just so many types of moths, and they are really incredible to look at.

Do you have a particular moth wall picked out at your house?

When we moved in there was a hot tub on the deck on the back of the house, and it was in the perfect spot for a moth sheet. But there was this hot tub. I couldn't put this sheet up there. We finally sold the hot tub a couple of years ago, and I immediately put my sheet up there. I've been eyeballing the spot for years.… We're just not hot tub people, I guess.

What's the story behind your car?

We bought a new car just recently, and it's silver and I'm not into silver. It's one of my least favourite car colours, so to combat this I printed up a magnet that you would normally get your business signs done up on, but with moths. And I cut all the moths out and I've put them on the side of my car and now it's my mothmobile. I picked a lot of the flashier species to use for that.

On the side I've got a small text box that says, 'Join the dark side.' It's an in-joke among moth people, that you could be into butterflies, which are the daytime fliers, or you could join the dark side and come to the night with all the moths because they are better.

Leckie's vehicle is covered in moth magnets. She's tried to keep them close to life-size. Her 'dark side' magnet is a nod to the moth's nighttime nature. (Seabrooke Leckie)

What do you think of mothballs?

They aren't really friendly, are they? As a way to keep moths out of your closet, I mean, they are effective. I heard that cedar also works.… Because [mothballs] are so chemical-heavy, I haven't really used them at all.

Why do you think moths sometimes get a bad rep?

I think it's just because people don't know very much about them, and that the stereotype isn't very favourable. I would say most people, if you make a joke about moths … they are going to come back with either a joke about the holes in their clothes in their closet or they are going to come back with something about lights, like the phrase a moth to a flame.... People just don't know.

Leckie said the best spots to moth are in Long Point, Point Pelee or on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. 'You have a really good chance of encountering these species that you may only see a handful of times over the course of your mothing lifetime.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

What would your ideal moth meme look like?

I'm terrible at meming things, so that's probably a terrible question to ask me. I would try and use something really eye-catching, like one of these gorgeous pink moths or bright yellow moths, and I might caption it something like, 'Butterflies ain't nothing on me.'

These answers have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

About the Author

Haydn Watters

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.