Moths are gentle, self-effacing creatures. So gentle, in fact, that even during the heyday of Hollywood’s monster films, giant moths were depicted as great heroes. The legendary Mothra was so loved she was pulled out of well-earned obscurity in the 90s to continue her quest of saving mankind from such evils as Godzilla and – no, we’re not kidding – SpaceGodzilla.
Nobody takes Mothra seriously, thank goodness (except, perhaps, Godzilla). But there is another legendary moth-like creature people do take seriously to this day. Here is a little West Virginia trivia: Point Pleasant’s Mothman’s bulky form and glowing red eyes is still spotted occasionally in West Virginia, where he first made history. Mothman even has his very own museum where you can see “realistic” Mothman models and learn all you ever wanted to know about how he was spotted several times in 1966. Mothman was spotted just prior to the disastrous collapse of the Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant and Canauga, Ohio. Tragically, 31 vehicles sank due to the rush hour collapse right before Christmas; 46 died. While Mothman can be seen as an evil omen, most took the sightings to be a warning about the imminent collapse of the bridge. In other words, Mothman, like Mothra, is a kind of hero.
This is a good thing, because moths are some of the most unsung heroes of the entire pollination world. Humbly spending most of the daylight hours hiding in trees and shrubs, moths fly during the night-time hours, pollinating hundreds of flowers. It’s hard to believe there are more than 11,000 moth species in North America alone. While bees are the best-known farmer’s friends, moths beat them solidly in one pollination arena – that of distance. Bees, bats, and birds tend to stick relatively close to their homes during flower seasons, but moths will fly anywhere they please, and can frequently be found miles from their birthplace.
While moths and butterflies look rather similar, there are easily spotted differences. Butterflies tend to rest with their wings upright, pressed together. This makes them difficult to spot from above, which is where their great enemy, the bird, is most likely to be. Moths lay their wings out at their sides, which forces them to adopt other strategies to “hide” from predators. Many have bland, often mottled coloring that allows them to blend in to their surroundings, rather like camouflage worn by hunters and soldiers. Others have gone on the offensive and appear to have eyes staring back at the startled bird.
Moths have larger, “fatter,” and certainly furrier bodies than butterflies. As you might suspect, that furry body is another amazing moth adaptation. Flying at night, moths must evade bats, which love to eat them. The fuzzy body “fur” has been shown to absorb up to 85% of incoming sound, making them difficult for bats to find with their sensitive echolocation systems. Some moths even have “ears” which allow them to sense when a bat is nearby.
Also, look at antennae. Butterflies usually have hair like structures with a small bulb at the end, while moths have “fuzzier” appendages. Those fuzzy antennae help the moth find mates in the dark world they fly in. The tiny hairs making up the “fuzz” on the antennae allow detection of the most minute amounts of pheromones emitted by females ready to mate. Size does matter for males…the larger the fuzzy antennae, the more likely the male is to find his lady love. If you find a moth with long, very fuzzy antennae, likely it’s a male.
Bees and butterflies use the warmth of the sun to jump start their movements. Moths fly at night, using vigorous wing movements to get going. Once they do, they seek out the nectar of sweetly scented, white flowers for the nectar which gives them the energy they need (some moths don’t feed at all, depending on a great life as a caterpillar to get them through). Long thought to be non-players to farmers, studies have shown moths increase pollination of human food crops significantly. They also improve pollination of many other less studied plants, like your flower garden.
One ambitious moth deliberately pollinates yucca flowers so her offspring will have food. It’s hard to believe, but the Yucca Moth grasps the entire pollen mass and forces it against the stigma which ensures pollination and seed production.
A few, a staggering few, moths give the entire family a bad name. It’s like blaming the neighbor’s potbelly pig for all the damage done by wild boars. Yes, there are pantry moths (set traps) and moths that eat clothing (set traps). All the rest are more helpful than harmful, and, like all pollinators, they’re on the run. Absolutely none of them bite humans. Some flies can look a lot like moths. Flies do bite but are generally visible, flying in daylight hours. Moths are quite harmless.
Want to attract amazing, gentle moths? Two approaches are necessary. The first is extremely simple – turn off your outdoor lights at night. Outdoor lights confuse all wild creatures; fireflies are endangered mainly because of their inability to find mates with all the lights. They simply can’t see well enough to recognize the flash patterns of their mates. Moths are affected, too. In fact, they are so well known for flying to the light that we have the expression “like moths to a flame.” Flying endlessly around the light, huge numbers are picked off by the delighted bats, while others simply die of exhaustion by morning. Small wonder the numbers of these timid pollinators is decreasing. Since outdoor lights are so damaging to moths, a simple solution is to consider using motion sensors on outdoor lights.
The second approach will be as valuable to other pollinators as turning off lights is for moths, fireflies and birds. Plant native species plants that will feed the baby moths (caterpillars). Plants that are “larval host plants” for butterflies are likely to do the same for moths. Oaks, family Quercus, are invaluable. Don’t worry about the caterpillars destroying your trees. The destructive Gypsy Moths aren’t native to this continent, which explains why they have created such havoc as birds don’t know what they are and avoid them. Most moth caterpillars will be food for a bird or baby bird, to the point that a moth mommy would be delighted if two of her children survived to adulthood out of the hundreds/thousands of eggs she lays. Birds are hungry, moths’ caterpillars are easy prey. Even the Gypsy Moths grow less formidable every year; nature is adjusting to them. This is the iron rule of food webs – the many at the bottom feed the few at the top.
Moths are also attracted to white and light-colored flowers, particularly those that open at night. Moths enjoy pleasing scents – this means they’ll love apple flowers but hate Bradford/Callery pear flowers, which smell like rotting flesh and are utterly attractive to flies. Moonflowers (Datura), evening primrose, and Morning Glory are thought to have evolved to be attractive to moths, but most plants attractive to butterflies are similarly attractive to moths. Tracking pollen found on moth “fur” proves moths will approach most flowers, particularly light colored, and carry enough pollen to make a bee jealous.
Winter is a tough time for today’s moths. For millennia they’ve simply bedded down or laid eggs in leaves thoughtfully dropped by deciduous trees. But nowadays we’re superstitious; we remove each and every leaf from our sight with fervor, as though an innocent leaf would allow the hounds of hell to find our homes. In so doing we remove the moth’s winter digs. Small wonder so many are endangered.
To help the moths, leave your leaves in some area of your yard. Not a leaf pile, which would compost the poor things, just an area, perhaps your flower garden, where leaves are allowed to just sit. A little leaf litter can be a moth’s best friend.
This summer enjoy your moths. If you see them now that you’re enlightened and have placed motion sensors on your outdoor lights (or turned them off completely), know that you are improving the future of all creatures on this amazing planet.
Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.