Backyard Naturalist: Shining a spotlight on moths

  • Sphinx moths. Photo by Brett Any Thelen

  • Sam Jaffe, executive director of the Marlborough-based Caterpillar Lab, talks about moths by the moth sheet. Photo by Theresa Earle

  • A luna moth silhouette. Photo by Brett Amy Thelen

  • Moth enthusiasts gather by the moth sheet. Photo by Brett Amy Thelen

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/26/2021 3:38:24 PM

Butterflies get all the glory. Babies notice them, puppies chase them, and we plant special flowers just to invite them into our yards. We can’t take our eyes off of them. They float from blossom to blossom while their vibrant colors and velvet wings enchant us. Butterflies have got it going on.

But what about the butterfly’s often overlooked cousin, the moth? Being mostly nocturnal and often muted in color, these fuzzy fliers go under the radar. Some, like the gossamer winged luna moth or the flashy cecropia moth, are stand outs. But others have bad reputations and are notoriously destructive. Think of the invasive gypsy moth and its ability to defoliate hundreds of acres of our New England forests. Or perhaps you’ve had an infestation of pantry moths, in your grain, dog food, or bird seeds.

But the majority of moths are not only harmless but play an essential role in our New England ecosystem. According to Samuel Jaffe, executive director of the Marlborough-based Caterpillar Lab, “Moths are indispensable in our environment.” Not only is their diversity astounding with more than 3,000 species identified in New England alone, but as Jaffe shares, “… caterpillars, are the dominant herbivore in our forests, consuming more leaves, passing on more energy, than any other group. Without moth caterpillars our food webs would simply grind to a halt.”

Moths are also essential pollinators. As Jaffe describes, “Some are generalists visiting flowers of a wide variety and also lapping up sap and rotting fruit. Others are highly specialized with long tongues or preferences for the nectar of only a few types of flowers.” Flowers with white or light-colored blossoms and sweet fragrances that open late in the day or at night, like morning glories or tobacco, are pollinated by moths. Recent studies conducted in England reveal that moths visit more plant species than bees, therefore, playing an essential, but until now, an often overlooked, role in pollination.

Moths, throughout their life-cycle, are a vital part of other animals’ diets. Many birds depend on caterpillars as part of their diet. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and author of “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” describes them as, “nature’s sausages: a very thin wrapper filled with good things,” making them a superfood packed with fat and protein for baby birds. Nestlings of eastern bluebirds, red-eyed vireos and even the American kestrel, a small falcon, are just some of the birds that grow up on a caterpillar diet. Moths and their caterpillars are also vital prey for other types of animals including bats, skunks, shrews, mice, frogs, toads, spiders and black bear.

Butterflies might be more beautiful but moths are the workhorse of our New England landscape when it comes to this order of insects. It is time to shine a light on moths and their role in our natural world. Moths were celebrated this summer during National Moth Week, which took place from July 17 to 25. Initiated in 2012 by a conservation organization from central New Jersey, it is now recognized across all 50 states and in over 80 other countries. Organizers hope to bring moths out of the dark and into the light.

If you’re interested in moths, find a time to visit the Caterpillar Lab in Marlborough this summer during their open hours. To find out more about Sam Jaffe and the Caterpillar Lab, visit their website at thecaterpillarlab.org.

Susie Spikol is the Community Program Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock.


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