Moths pollinate night-blooming plants daytime bees miss, provide a key source of food for birds, and play a vital role in most of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems.
In the PR campaign of public opinion, wasps lose out to bees, and moths certainly come in second to butterflies. It’s not for lack of representation – for every species of butterfly, there are 19 species of moth, all of which perform equal if not greater roles in the ecosystem. But it seems that all it takes is one chewed up sweater, and moths are on the enemy list.
It’s time to fully appreciate the many vital things moths do for us.
Adult moths pollinate a large variety and number of plant species. Plants such as the Evening Primrose, Moonflower, Datura, Brugmansia, Night Gladiolus, Night Phlox, and some types of Jasmine and Orchids bloom only at night – moths work the night shift to pollinate these flowers while bees and butterflies are asleep.
Moth caterpillars have voracious appetites, and all the leaves and miscellaneous greenery they munch on to get fattened up for their chrysalis stage get quickly returned to the soil in the form of important nutrients to feed other plants.
They are an important part of the food chain. “Due to their sheer numbers in the landscape, moths and their caterpillars provide a critical food resource for a vast number of wildlife species,” says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski. “Not only do birds and bats consume moths at every stage of the insects’ life cycle, so do lizards, small rodents, skunks and even bears.”
Without moths, birds would have a tough time feeding their young. As Kelly Brenner writes for the National Wildlife Federation:
Perhaps no wildlife rely more on moths for food than do birds during the breeding season. Contrary to what many people believe, “most birds do not reproduce on berries and seeds,” Tallamy says. “Ninety-six percent of all terrestrial birds rear their offspring on insects, primarily the caterpillars of moths.” Even birds that typically eat seeds will switch to insects when they are rearing chicks.
Sadly, moths are fairing no better than butterflies when it comes to the health of their overall global population. The overall number of moths has decreased by 28% since 1968. In areas of the UK, moth numbers are down by 40%.
What can you do to support moths and nurture their recovery and survival?
Here are a few tips from the NWF:
Plant larval food. Perhaps the most important way to attract and nurture moths is to provide host plants for the insects’ caterpillars. Some species are particular and will feed only on one family or even a single species of plant. Caterpillars in the sphinx moth family, for example, require snowberry, viburnum or blueberry.
Cultivate native nectar. When considering flowering plants for nectar, look for those with long tubular flowers. Night-blooming plants are important for some moth species. Be sure to grow a diversity of plants to ensure your yard offers continuous blooms from spring through autumn.
Be a lazy gardener. In autumn, leave your leaves on the ground and dead vegetation standing. Both will shelter moth eggs, caterpillars, cocoons and adults during winter. If you must clean up, transfer leaves and other dead plant material to an unused corner of your yard or flower bed instead of bagging or shredding them.
Add places to hide. Tree stumps, snags, fallen dead wood and brush piles are ideal locations for moths to overwinter, seek shelter from rain and hang their cocoons.
Avoid pesticides. Insecticides kill moths directly while herbicides kill or contaminate host and nectar plants the insects need to survive.
Turn off the lights. At night, switch off unnecessary outdoor lights. Moths that become trapped by light beams will waste valuable time that could be spent foraging or looking for mates.