I was at the check-out counter at the True Value hardware store in Warren, MN last week, when Jeannie Ulferts stopped me and said, “Maybe you could identify the moth we found this morning. It was just outside the door.”

I was at the check-out counter at the True Value hardware store in Warren, MN last week, when Jeannie Ulferts stopped me and said,

“Maybe you could identify the moth we found this morning.  It was just outside the door.”

    “I’ll give it a try,” I said.

    “Let’s go outside and take a look,” said Ulferts.

    We didn’t have to go far.  It was literally right outside the door, clinging to the dark brown frame.  I didn’t notice it when entered the store.  But after Ulferts pointed it out, it was easy to spot.  It was big (about 3 inches, tip to tail) brown, black and white, with wings the shape of an arrow.

    I am not an entomologist, but I am proud to say that I can identify a handful of common moths found in Minnesota, including the big green “Luna,” the black-and-white “Giant Leopard” and the big tan moth with the owl-eyes on its wings, the “Polyphemus.”  

    The moth in front of us was not one of them.  

    According to the Department of Natural Resources, there are about 800 species of moths and 140 species of butterflies in the land of 10,000 lakes.

    Still, I was confident I could name this moth – probably before the end of the day.  All I’d need is a good digital photo and internet access.    

    I went to my car to get my camera, and took some photos.  Unfortunately, the moth was not in the best location for a photo ID.  I needed the moth-in-the-hand and close-ups of its face and antennae.  

 “Jeannie,” I said.  “Could hold it for me, while I take a photo?”

    She looked at me and cringed just a little.  The expression on her face said:  You’ve got to be kidding.

    “They don’t bite,” I assured her.

    She didn’t seem convinced, but she was game.   I gently pulled the moth off the door frame, and put it in her open hands.  But before I could get my camera ready, the moth started flapping its wings and flew off.      

    Where’d it go?  Neither of us had a clue.  

    I needed a better photo, so I organized an impromptu search party consisting of me, Jeannie and Jay Ulferts and Roger Hille, who just happened to be walking by when the moth escaped.

     My search territory was the sidewalk by the curb.  The others focused on the displays in front of the store.   

    I didn’t find “our” moth, but I did find an unexpected, but familiar orange butterfly on the sidewalk.  It was a Painted Lady.   I picked it up and showed it to Ulferts and Hille.

    “Can someone hold this butterfly while I take a photo?”

    Jeannie offered her hand and the butterfly cooperated.  Then I heard a shout.

    “I found the moth!” Jay Ulferts called out, “It’s over here.”  He pointed to the ground by the bicycle display in front of the store window.  

    I walked over, bent down and picked it up.   Another passerby volunteered to hold it.   This time the moth cooperated.  

    I took the photos I needed, hopped in my car and headed home.   

    I edited my photos and headed to my favorite insect identification website:   BugGuide.net.  

    I logged on, clicked the “ID request” button and uploaded the photos.  At that point, 2:45pm, there was nothing left to do but wait for a reply.  

    Two hours later, I got the email from BugGuide.  Brandon Woo, a Cornell University student majoring in entomology, had identified our “mystery moth” as a member of the “sphinx moth” family:  a “Laurel Sphinx.”

    Now that I had a name, it was easy to learn more about the new insect in my life.

    There are more than 1,200 species in the “sphinx family” world-wide.  

    They live on every continent, except Antarctica.  

    There are 16 species of sphinx moths in America (north of Mexico) and 8 in Minnesota.

    The Laurel Sphinx, also known as the “Fawn Sphinx” (because of its tan coloring), is found in eastern North American from Manitoba and Newfoundland south to the northern Gulf States.  

    The caterpillar, known as a hornworm, is large and green, and feeds on lilac and privet, olives and ash. This far north, the caterpillars are active from May to August.  The adults fly in June and July.  They overwinter as pupa in the ground.

    If you haven’t discovered BugGuide.net, give it a try.           Go outside with your smart phone or camera.  Take a photo of an insect, any insect.  Uplink it, and see what happens.