If you were to come across a member of the Lepidoptera family, chances are, what’s caught your eye would be a beautiful butterfly – seeing a flash of vibrant coloured wings flapping around the garden always makes me smile – but would we have a similar reaction if we glanced a moth? Probably not – most of these guys fail to attract the same attention as their showier relatives – but we’re definitely missing out by overlooking them. If you think of moths as clothes munching, dowdy brown coloured creatures that annoy you by fliting around a light at night, then maybe you should take a closer look…
I was astounded to learn that of all the Lepidoptera family – 90% are moths! There are an estimated 15,000 species of butterfly but a staggering 150,000 of moths – not only are they much more prolific than butterflies, but they’re also much older, having emerged a long time earlier – about 190 million years ago – they got a head start on the butterflies by about 50 million years – but still they remain the Cinderella of their species.
Moths vary considerably in size – the largest moth in the world is the Atlas moth, which measures a whopping 27cm (10.5 inches) – not only is it huge, but it’s beautifully patterned too. On the other end of the size spectrum is the smallest moth, which is the teeny Stigmella Mayla, coming in at a mere 1.2mm (0.05 inch).
So, what are the typical things that come to mind when we think of moths? They’re not as pretty as butterflies? At first glance it might be easy to think so, but if you really take the time for a closer look, you’ll see patterns and colourations that are intricate and beautiful. Moths are often coloured to give them camouflage in their surroundings – these guys are masters of disguise and it’s likely that you’ll have passed many a one by without even knowing it was there!
They’re not just great at playing hide n seek – they’re also great imitators – some even looking remarkably like wasps or bees to fool would-be predators into thinking twice before taking a snack! One of the scariest moth designs is the charmingly named Death Head Hawk moth (think Silence of the Lambs!) which appears to have a skull on its back…creepy!
But if you’re still wanting flashy colours, there are some moths who aren’t shy when it comes to putting on a show. Take the Elephant Hawk moth for example – would you believe these guys are pink and green? Yes really! They look like they’ve gone for that clashing vibrant colour fashion! Or there’s the Cinnabar moth, which is bright red and grey, or the Garden Tiger moth, which is obviously a fan of leopard print teamed with orange! So, it’s not just the butterflies that get to parade on the fashion catwalk!
Another thing that you might think about moths is that they eat your clothes. If you’re old enough, you might remember the disgusting smell of moth balls in your granny’s wardrobe, which were supposed to put off these would be munchers! Actually, it’s only a certain kind of moth – not surprisingly called Cloths moths – that are the culprits here and it’s not the moths, but their larvae that do the damage. There’s no denying that clothes moths can be a pest, but thankfully there are more modern ways of controlling them, such as introducing tiny parasitic wasps that are their natural predators, or even putting affected items into the freezer to stop the eggs in their tracks.
“Like a moth to a flame”, so the saying goes, moths are famous for being unable to pass a light by – but then so are lots of other flying insects. There are many theories as to why they find the luminosity so irresistible – one is that they use moonlight to help them navigate and are mistaking the light for their sat nav moonshine; another suggestion is that pheromones (which help the moths to find a mate) are heightened by light – making it an attractive prospect. Whatever it is, many moths simply can’t resist the lure of a lamp.
One thing you might not know is that moths are known as an indicator species – ie they tell us how healthy an eco-system is. Worryingly (sadly akin with so many other creatures these days) many species of moths are on the decline. In the UK, this is especially true in the south of England. Moths are finding it hard going with the loss of their habitats, increasing light pollution, climate change and the use of chemicals and pesticides.
Why should we worry about falling moth numbers? Well, moths are a very important food source to many creatures, including, bats, mammals, reptiles, other insects, spiders, birds and even fish! Therefore, declining numbers of moths means less food for their predators.
What do moths themselves eat? Would you believe that many adult moths don’t actually eat at all! Of course, while they’re caterpillars, they like to munch on plants, fruits, roots, grains and as mentioned, textiles. Once they are adults, like butterflies, moths mainly drink nectar or sugary juice from fruit. Their preference for nectars means they are important pollinators, especially of night flowering plants.
One thing you probably didn’t know is that male moths have an incredible sense of smell – amazingly, they can detect the perfume of a female moth up to 7 miles away! That’s some nose, you might think – but they don’t have noses – instead they smell with scent receptive hairs on their antennae. It’s having a keen sense of smell that helps these critters get around after dark, this teamed with specially adapted eyes that help them to see better at night; not forgetting their hairy bodies, which is another feature helping them to stay cosy on those cooler evenings!
Although most moths are nocturnal, there are some braver souls that trip out during daylight hours; so if you happen to spot one, maybe it’s time for a closer look at these important and fascinating creatures.