The Southern Flannel moth

The night sky is far more active than we normally take it to be, and moths are a large percentage of the nocturnal fliers. While there are moths who are active in daytime, most prefer the night life and instead tend to shelter during the day hidden among their favorite hiding places due to intricate camouflage.

Chances are a walk in the park takes you past far more hidden moths than you realize – in fact, there are around eight times more species of moths than there are butterflies.

Moths are incredibly important pollinators, especially for night blooming and early flowering plants like witch hazel. While the majority of moths are not eye catching, the benefits that they supply to a landscape justify that they be kept in mind as you design a wildlife-friendly garden.

Even though moths vastly outnumber butterflies, they both belong to the same insect order.

This is mostly due to their wings, which are covered in tiny scales. Many times, these scales are the size of a single cell. The scales on the wings of butterflies and moths are thought to serve several purposes. Many times, they are arranged in specific patterns that help the animal hide, attract a mate, or occasionally both at the same time.

When confronted with an attacking predator or a spider’s web, these scales are able to quickly detach as well. This can give the butterfly or moth enough time to quickly slip away as the predator is left with a mouthful of scales. Studies have also found that the scales provide extra lift to the insect, helping them fly long distances with minimal effort.

Several species of moth embark on epic migrations in order to reach nesting and feeding grounds each year. It is believed that they are able to use stars and the Earth’s magnetic field in order to find their way during these trips. Unfortunately, some of these navigation methods seem to be highly impacted by human urbanization.

In order to locate a compatible mate in the dark, many moths rely on complex pheromones, or chemical scents, to attract a match. Females release these pheromones in the hopes that nearby males will pick up the signal using their long and feathery antennae.

These bushy brows are a main difference between moths and butterflies, as most butterflies don’t rely on pheromones and possess simpler, thinner antennae.

Male moths are able to detect miniscule amounts of female pheromones from up to a mile away. They are so effective at doing so that some species of spiders mimic these pheromones to lure in amorous male moths. Interestingly, it seems that some of these pheromones also give off tiny amounts of infrared light as well.

This could be a reason that moths are drawn to artificial light – some of the wavelengths released by candles are very similar to those created by moth pheromones, for example. Other forms of artificial light, especially ultraviolet wavelengths produced from mercury vapor streetlights, are suspected of making moth navigation and reproduction difficult. Recent studies have shown that urban moth populations are evolving to approach artificial light less frequently, however they are also most likely reproducing and pollinating less as well since their main avoidance strategy is to simply fly less.

Just like with butterflies, many moths require specific plants on which to raise their young. Many of our native moths rely on native plants for caterpillar rearing.

In order to support the largest number of moths in your area, remember to plant native plants whenever possible and leave leaf litter, stick piles and other refuse in place to give moths a sheltered place to hide during the day.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at brannen.basham@gmail.com.