Effective Bait Trapping

Bait Trap in Use

Bait Trap in Tree


There have been many reports on the use of bait for collecting Lepidoptera. As a teenager I remember reading Holland's (1903) account in the Moth Book of his experience baiting for Catocala. Every collector I know has his own bait recipe, secret formulas like witches brew concocted to place that poor alcoholic Catocala moth in a drunken stupor. The success of the bait trap depends on the bait, the better the bait, the better the catch. I have tried everything and anything, from sweet to sour, salty to rotten, artificial to DOA (road kills) and I still continue to seek out new and interesting baits.

The most frequently used baits are fermenting or rotting fruits, this is commonly referred to as sweet baits. In the early 90's I developed a rather simple and very effective bait. The recipe is easy and will make about two gallons of bait: 3 lbs of cheap apples, 2 lbs of ripe bananas (I use peaches, nectarines and plums as well when in season), and one cup of cane sugar. Cut the apples and bananas into small pieces and mix together. Place an equal amount of the mixed fruit into gallon Ziploc bags, add ½ cup of sugar to each bag and a cup of water. Seal the bag (Make sure it is sealed, if not the next step could result in a mess) and shake the bag mixing the contents.

Place the bag in the sun. When fermentation begins the bag will swell like a balloon, which means the bait is ready. Use lots of bait in your trap. The bait is best while the fruit is fermenting. I no longer use any alcohol, (Beer, wine or whiskey, no brandy either) as it accelerates fermenting and turns the liquids in the bait to vinegar. Once this occurs, the bait is useless. I change the bait every 5 to 7 days depending on the weather conditions. Also, keep the bait moist. I have used apples, peaches, plums, bananas and nectarines. These work well when used by themselves or mixed with other fruits.

I have used persimmons, melons, mulberries, grapes, apricots, citrus fruits, coconuts, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries and papayas. I achieved some degree of success with each, and on occasion I would experience extremely successful results that I have never been able to reproduce. One occurrence in particular happened at Triangle Lake, Portage County, Ohio. I had been using beer and apples with rather poor results, as I was walking along the board walk in the bog checking traps, I found that the blueberries were ripe and I would pick and eat them as I went along, then I remembered a trip to Triangle Lake the pervious fall with Eric Metzler. Eric had baited a trail with sponges of Brandy and Banana wine, although some moths were taken at the sponges, it was soon discovered that more moths could be found on the fermenting blueberries still clinging to the branch. I picked a container full of blueberries and crushed them, I baited one trap with just blueberries and another with blueberries and beer mixture. When I returned to check my traps the following day, I found them to contain many Catocala and other noctuids. Many nymphalid butterflies were collected with a blueberry and elderberry mixture. I tried this at several other locations and experienced terrible results. I noted that no blueberry plants were present at these locations. I had a similar incident happen on Key Largo, Florida this spring. While trapping for Eunica tatila I was using beer and apples in some traps and beer and bananas in others with rather poor results. E. tatila was very abundant in the hammocks and could be found commonly around soapberry trees, I observed E. tatila feeding on rotting soapberries on the ground. I immediately gathered several containers full, mixed some beer with and some without, put them in the traps, the next day I had 20 or more E. tatila in each trap. However, that was the only species in the traps. Observing what butterflies and moths feed on can greatly aid you in your baiting.

I have used animal droppings with very limited success. In the mountains of Virginia I used fresh deer feces in the spring and had some very good results, but during the summer deer feces only filled the traps with flies. I made a trip to a local park that had several deer in captivity, when I ask if I could collect the deer droppings, I received several strange looks, but the feces of wild deer held in captivity proved to be useful for flies only.

The diet of the deer must therefore be the deciding factor. I found the same to be true of bear, horse and raccoon droppings. Urine of mammals will also attract Lepidoptera, including human urine. I have used a mixture of sand, rock salt, and urine as a bait and I have had some excellent results. Feniseca tarquinius will readily come to this bait, along with Basilarchia astyanax, and Lethe anthedon. I have made no attempt to collect mammal urine for use in traps. You reach a point when enough is enough!

Reptilian road kills have always produced some good collecting; well- smashed toad is a favorite of Nymphalids. Snakes in the same condition are a close second. Box turtles are also good, I have used them all at one time or another and have found them to be excellent for Polygonia fanaus, P. progene and Nymphalis vau-album. I have put several toads and a snake in a blender and whipped up a nasty batch of reptilian chopped meat, I only had moderate success with Polygonia and Nymphalis species. My wife also made me buy her a new blender. (A word of caution: when using these baits a strong stomach is mandatory.)

When traveling with limited time, I have used yeast to make the bait ferment quickly, especially when using fruit baits. I do not recommend the use of yeast for long term baiting. Mold develops over the bait and renders it useless.

Another bait that I have had limited success with is corn meal. Fill a container full of corn meal, add water until the meal is completely saturated, then add some yeast and fermentation begins. This bait is short lived, three (3) days at the most. At times this bait can be very effective, at others times it is only good for corn meal muffins.


A good trap and excellent bait are only as good as the location where you place it. It is important to remember the what, where, and when of bait trapping. What is the larval host plant, where the moth or butterfly and their host plants occur, and when do the adults appear. I have found that habitats with known host plants will produce the best results.

Search for natural flyways, especially those that receive the late afternoon sun, as these will usually produce the best  results. Along the banks of streams and creeks are also excellent flyways. Locate a tree that overhangs the water and hang a trap in it. Power line cuts, gas, and oil pipe line right-of-ways are other good flyways. The borders of woodlands and forests are also excellent trap locations. Hill top location, especially those with woodland or forest borders, or a natural ravine leading down the side of the hill are also excellent. The borders of wet lands, bogs and swamps produce some choice species. A little knowledge of the Lepidoptera you want to collect and some habitat information will aid you tremendously in your trapping.     


Once you have found a suitable location for your trap, hang it securely from a strong tree limb or branch. I hang my traps high enough so that the platform with the bait container is at eye level. When checking the trap and to remove specimens, the trap must be lowered.

I have hung traps high in the trees, 20 to 30 feet, to collect Nymphalids. The higher you hang the trap, the more it will be effected by the wind. If you plan to let your trap hang for extended periods of time, use a good grade of nylon rope. Be sure that your trap is out of sight. Putting traps were they can be easily seen could result in damage or the loss of it. Don't hesitate to ask private property owners for permission to hang traps, I have never been turned down and the owners turn out to be good watch dogs. They also tend to ask lots of questions and find your trap very interesting. A small price for some good security.

Once your trap is hung it must be tended. I check my traps twice a day, in the morning for moths, and the late afternoon for butterflies. Keep the bait saturated with the with water. Change the bait weekly, especially when using fruit.

Fully Loaded!

There are other creatures beside Lepidoptera that will consume your bait. Ants, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, and opossums will not only devour the bait and the entrapped specimens, they will chew holes in the screen  getting in and out of the trap. There is a certain feeling that you get when you come to your trap and find only the wings of Catocala duciola, the body having been consumed by a hungry mouse. There are several simple things that can be done to keep unwanted bait-eaters out. The rope or line which is used to suspend the trap provides access to it. Apply a thick coat of vasoline or grease to the line and spray it with an insect repellent weekly. This will keep ants, insects, and small rodents from coming down the rope. A nine inch aluminum pie pan can be inserted on the line by punching a hole big enough to allow the rope or line to pass through. Tie a large knot in the line twelve (12) inches above the trap; the knot will prevent the pie pan from sliding down the line and it will also block rodents and other small mammals from coming down the rope. The pie pan will turn and wobble freely on the rope, the unwanted visitor will be unable to find footing on the unstable pie pan and keep the unwanted visitors out of the bait. Another method is to mix tabasco or other “Hot Sauces” with Crisco/lard and coat the suspension line with the mixture. The foot pads of rodents are very sensitive and the acid from the peppers in the hot sauce will burn the foot pads. When I first began using bait traps I would often find my traps with the bait container on the ground and the bait gone; once I began using grease and pie pans I rarely lost bait.

Birds and most insects, like Lepidoptera, will fly to the trap, I have found no real solution to prevent them from entering the trap. More than once have I found a fat frightened little chickadee or sparrow in my trap, unable to find its way out after eating all the specimens. Hornets and wasps will enter the trap by two different means: (1) When they are attracted to the bait and then fly up and into the trap and become disoriented, as a result they cannot find their way out; and (2) When they are hunting prey, they can find their way in and out of the trap with ease, I have never seen them take Lepidoptera, only flies and other small insects.

Many other insects are attracted to the bait and will become entrapped. These unwanted guests also present some problems for the lepidopterist. Yellow jackets, wasps, and hornets pose a real danger, they sting! Every year I manage to receive several stings when reaching into the trap to remove specimens, usually by small yellow jackets. I made a trap with a 1/4 grid aluminum mesh top which allowed most insects to escape, including most of the smaller Lepidoptera. The larger hornets could not escape. I still have no acceptable solution to the problem.

I always manage to notice and avoid the larger hornets and wasps. Large numbers of flies will occasionally become entrapped. Their constant movement will remove scales from any Lepidoptera in trap. I have had the upper surface of Catocala forewings completely de-scaled as a result.


Proper storage of your traps when not in use can add many years of life to them. It is important to properly prepare your traps for long term storage. Throughly clean your trap with soap and water, hang them out with the inverted cone dropped through the bottom and thoroughly wash them down with a garden hose, allow to dry. Once dry apply a light coat of vegetable oil, this will help to prevent dry rot  and permanent  creasing of the screen while the trap is collapsed. Place the trap in a plastic bag and store in a cool dry place.   

In conclusion, these traps provide an efficient means of collecting Lepidoptera. I have used up to thirty traps at a time, in a wide range of habitats and have enjoyed some exciting and adventurous experiences. Whether you decide to purchase a Bait Trap or you decide to build your own Bait Trap, the type of material you use in the construction will determine the cost. The results will depend on how patient, consistent and determined you are.

Up close!

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