This past week was National Moth Week. Don’t feel badly if you missed it - I didn’t pick up on it until Thursday. Even then I have to admit I was skeptical; my perception of moths was somewhat negative.
Either they hung around the porch lights at night making nuisances of themselves or they took bites out of sweaters – expensive wool sweaters. I just couldn’t feature why moths needed to be celebrated for an entire week!
My eight year old granddaughter took a great deal of pleasure in setting me straight. She had just finished a week at summer camp studying insects. Day three was Butterflies and Moths. She was now not only the family expert, but also quite anxious to share what she had learned.
Her moth lesson covered the basics. Moths are part of the Lepidoptera (you should have heard her massacre that word!), the same as butterflies. Their wings are covered with scales that rub off when you touch them, but it doesn't hurt the moth if you are gentle. There are lots (12,000 types) of moths in North America but only 2,000 are found here in Missouri. Most moths, but not all, fly at night and they are just as important pollinators as other, more popular, insects. They are also a big part of the food chain. Birds, bats, mammals and other insects eat moths.
I can’t say that her information made me love moths, but her sincerity prompted me to do some digging on my own, and to give moths a chance to redeem themselves in my eyes. As she stated, moths and butterflies are in the order Lepidoptera. While butterflies are considered the poster children of the order, the 12,000 moth species outnumber butterfly species by over 10 to 1. There are more known types of moths here in the United States than all of the bird and mammal species combined.
The tiniest moths are smaller than the tip of a pencil; the largest are bigger than most of the birds that visit your feeders. The Atlas Moth, found in Southeast Asia, has a foot long wingspan. Our largest moth, the Royal Walnut Moth, has a 4.5 inch wingspan. It is typically found in the deciduous woodlands of eastern Missouri and throughout the Ozarks.
Although moths have the reputation of being drab, nocturnal creatures, put to shame by their dazzling butterfly cousins, the comparison isn’t totally warranted. Many moth species,
both here and world-wide, are both diurnal and beautifully colored. The Sheep Moth found in our western states or the fuzzy, yellow Rosy Maple Moth of the eastern United States are both exceptionally lovely day flying moths. While the dull-colored nocturnal moths may not win many insect beauty pageants, they do deserve recognition for their abilities to hide in plain sight. Their color schemes allow them to seamlessly blend into their surroundings, protecting them from hungry predators.
If you love a shimmering white garden, then night flying moths are definitely an asset to you. Many of the daytime pollinators are attracted to brightly colored flowers such as those with red, orange and yellow petals. Others, like native bees, are drawn to blue and purple blooms. Very few day flying pollinators actively seek out white, cream or silver blossoms. They are largely ignored. Those same flowers seem to come alive at night though. Because the colors stand out in the darkness, nocturnal moths, looking for nectar sources, head straight toward them.
Whether they are day flying or night flying creatures, moths are surprisingly efficient and effective pollinators. A study by researchers at University College in London concluded that moths are vital to plant pollination. Nocturnal moths are known to visit more plant species than day active bees do, including visiting species that are rarely visited by bees, hoverflies and butterflies. With the number of bees declining, moth participation in the pollination process could become critical, especially to agriculture.
Most moths are generalists, randomly flitting from flower to flower to sample nectar and, as a by-product, gathering pollen on their hairy bodies. Some moths however, are much more intentional in their behaviors, relying on a single plant species. Each Joshua tree species depends on a specific yucca moth for pollination. The Joshua tree then is the host plant for the moth. Neither could survive without the other.
Moths, like butterflies, have a four stage life cycle – egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult. Females lay thousands of eggs in the hopes that some make it to adulthood. The eggs hatch within 4 to 10 days, depending on environmental conditions.
The next phase, the caterpillar stage, is the most dangerous in a moth’s life. Most moths are caterpillars for about seven weeks, but the likelihood of a moth caterpillar becoming a pupa is low since they are tasty, protein-rich predator food.
(By the way, I did learn that it is the caterpillar, not the adult moth who has a taste for wool sweaters. They are looking for keratin, a fibrous protein that the worm-like larvae of the clothes moth can digest. In nature, they find it in bird and mammal carcasses.) The pupa stage, for those who achieve it, often lasts between 1 and 2 weeks.
An adult moth, depending on the species, lives 1 to 6 months.
Equal to, or maybe even greater than, their roles as pollinators, moths are, as my granddaughter stated, big parts of the food chain. Night flying moths are the major food source for bats. If bats were to lose their primary food source and go extinct, the world would then lose about 20% of its mammal population. (and chocolate!) Moth caterpillars and pupae are significant as food for birds, hornets, ants, lizards, small rodents, skunks and even bears. Without them at the web’s base, it would eventually collapse, bringing an end to multiple other species.
If I’m perfectly honest, then I have to admit that moths - day flying or night flying, pretty or drab – still do not rank at the top of my Favorite Pollinators List. (I can’t seem to let go of the sweater incident.) But personal feelings aside, I have learned to appreciate how vital the lowly moth really is to our environment. Perhaps a week really is necessary to convince doubters like me that even a moth deserves respect.