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Wax moth illustration

Moth Music {format} {format} {format} 3:31 Jeff Rice

The eerily beautiful music of moth wings.

Broadcast: Jun 11 2007 on HV PODCAST; Sep 7 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Western Soundscape Subjects: Technology, Science, Music, Environment

Profile: Music made by wax moths

September 7, 2004 from Day to Day

NOAH ADAMS, host: Producer Jeff Rice is fascinated with animals and the sounds they make. He brought us the howling mouse, dancing gnats, and now--well, we'll just let him explain. Here's Jeff Rice.

JEFF RICE reporting:

This is my backyard, and this is my shed. This is where I keep the moths.

(Soundbite of door being opened; moths humming)

RICE: When the wax moths first arrived at my house, I fed them and kept them alive. I put them in a terrarium and I watched them grow. I couldn't hear anything at first. But I fed them beeswax and honey, things like cornflakes and oats. An entomologist told me that would make them healthy. I kept them warm at night with the heat lamp.

(Soundbite of moths)

RICE: Wax moths are considered a pest. They get their name because they attack beehives and eat the wax and honey.

(Soundbite of bees; moths)

RICE: Within weeks, they turned my terrarium into a pile of discarded cocoons and they ground the food into dust. When old moths died, new ones spun silk on top of their bodies. There was no way to keep it clean. I just surrendered to the chaos.

(Soundbite of moths)

RICE: A few years back, scientists found out something strange about wax moths. They communicate with hidden sounds. The moths' wing beats create washes of ultra-high-pitched frequencies called ultrasonics that the moths can hear, but humans can't. It's too high-pitched, unless you've got the right equipment.

(Soundbite of moths)

RICE: Using this little device here--it's called the bat detector. It hears high-pitched sounds, and biologists usually use it to hear bats. But it works on moths, too. It's like listening by braille. It represents what it hears as static washes and pulses. It's a key to a hidden world of sounds and gave me an idea. I attached the ultrasound detector to my computer and began to program some music software so that I could get a musical interpretation of what these moth noises sounded like. After weeks of work, the music began to take shape. The moth frequencies knocked strange musical pitches around like billiard balls. The wings beat rhythms of filtered static. And when I pointed the detector at the moths, they made these sounds.

(Soundbite of moths)

RICE: It's been two years since the moths came to my house. I'm thinking of taking them on the road. I think I may quit my job and start a moth band. I'll be the moth man.

(Soundbite of moths)

ADAMS: Jeff Rice produced this piece with the help of Hearing Voices, a forum for independent radio producers.

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.