Moths: Unsung Heroes of Pollination and Beyond

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Intro: Did you know that there are approximately 10 times more moth species worldwide than there are butterfly species? Or that without moths we would have fewer songbirds, less genetic diversity in many of our native plants, and lower harvests of many popular fruits? Or that creating better moth habitats around our homes also benefits our health and wellbeing?

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Today we’re talking to Dr. Elena Tartaglia. Elena is a co-founder of National Moth Week and a research associate at Rutgers University.

Hi Elena. Welcome to Backyard Ecology. Thank you for talking with us today.

Elena: Thanks for having me, Shannon. I’m really excited to be here.

Shannon: You’re welcome. I’m excited too because moths are such fun and interesting organisms and they’re so important to our ecosystems, but we often overlook them. So it’s gonna be fun to learn a little bit more about them.

But before we get started, can you tell everyone just a little bit about. What it is that you do and how you got interested in moths.

Elena: Yeah, sure. So, I was always, you know, a nature lover and I thank my parents for that. As a kid they took, you know, me and my brothers on lots of trips to do hiking and stuff like that. So, our family vacations often centered on outdoorsy stuff, which was really fun.

Then I always wanted to study biology. So I went to college and I got a biology degree and I sort of focused in on the environmental studies aspect of things. And I was really interested in pollination.

So going into graduate school, I knew I wanted to study some aspect of pollination biology, particularly in urban environments because I find that to be a really important aspect of ecology because the world is getting more urban. So, it’s really important to figure out how we can coexist with the natural world and also have our urban environment.

And so I was studying pollination in urban environments and one of the things you look for when you do a graduate degree is sort of the gaps in the literature. So bees get a lot of attention and bees are fantastic. Absolutely. They are major crop pollinators and so they deserve a lot of attention.

But Lepidoptera get a little less attention in terms of pollination biology. Then in terms of Lepidoptera, butterflies get a lot of the Lepidoptera attention. Butterflies are also wonderful and they’re awake at the same time as we are, so they’re much easier to study.

So I noticed that there wasn’t a ton on moth ecology in urban environments. And that’s sort of what got me started on my journey in studying moths. I focused on a specific family, because when you do a dissertation, you really have to focus. So I focused on the hawk moth family, which is the family Sphingidae and they’re major pollinators of the floral communities of the Eastern US at night.

And that’s how I came to meet the people that we all founded National Moth Week with. We used to do these Moths Nights in East Brunswick. My colleagues Liti Haramaty and David Moskowitz were doing these moth nights in East Brunswick.

I’d see advertisements and people were like, “Oh, you should go to those.” So, I did and I met them. Then, you know, we were all sitting around packing up and thinking about how many people were interested in these sort of local community Moth Nights. We would advertise a little bit on Facebook and stuff, and lots of people would come to these community Moth Nights.

And so we’re, we’re sitting around one night, packing up after everyone went. And we’re like, “It would be really fun if we got everyone in New Jersey to participate in a Moth Night one night.”

And then we were like, “Wait a second, why stop at just New Jersey? Why don’t we get the whole U.S.?”

And they were like, “Wait, why don’t we get the whole world?”

And so we did. I think we were just at a good time in social media where we just put this out into social media and into our website, and so many people were interested all over the world in participating in mothing.

So that’s what brought me to National Moth Week. We have participants in dozens of countries. We try to get every single state, every single year, and we usually succeed in that.

Shannon: Yes. I’ve been hearing about National Moth Week for a few years now and I’m sure we’ll be talking more about it in a little bit too. But since moths are, like we said, they’re often overlooked. Let’s just start there and talk a little bit about why they are so important and what are some of those roles that they play.

Elena: Sure. So, you know, moths get a bad name, right? So when I tell people, I study moths and I talk about moths, people are always like, “Oh, well I hate moths. They eat my clothes.”

That’s so unfair because there are so many species of moths and a tiny handful, less than five of them are pests of fibers, right? And so that’s such an easily avoidable problem. And even if you don’t avoid, it, it’s easy to treat.

But, you know, moths are really important in ecosystems in a couple of ways. I’m gonna talk about sort of the big three.

I like to start with decomposition. Decomposition is a process by which dead organisms break down, right?

And so, I like to say that if we didn’t have decomposition, the earth would be really unpleasant. Cause everything that ever died would still be here. So that’s one aspect of decomposition.

The other aspect of decomposition is nutrient cycling. So when a plant grows in soil, it takes nutrients from the soil – you know, nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil – to build its body. And those nutrients stay in the body until the plant dies.

Then when it dies the only way for those nutrients to cycle back to the soil is via decomposition. And moths play a role in decomposition along with, of course, bacteria and the fungi and many other arthropods and invertebrates. Moths in particular, a lot of them do leaf litter decomposition.

So, we have decomposition. That’s a major, major role in ecology.

Of course, moths are food. So, they’re in food webs. They’re food for birds. They’re food for bats. They’re food for lizards. Any omnivorous creature will eat insects. They’re a great source of protein.

And so, really, though, to put a fine point on it, caterpillars are probably the number one resource for nestlings for breeding bird success, right? So if you think about a caterpillar, a caterpillar is a soft little sack of protein, right? It’s perfect baby food.

Caterpillars, Lepidoptera larva, are the number one source for nestlings. Even in birds that are maybe primarily granivores as adults, they still feed their offspring caterpillars.

So, we have decomposition, we have food webs, and then pollination.

Pollination is when plants’ gametes get carried from place to place to ensure reproduction. And so plants employ a couple of methods. Some of them employ wind, but a lot of them use insect pollinators. And of course, as we know, bees are the major daytime pollinators, but moths carry pollen in the nighttime. That’s gonna ensure genetic diversity in plants and keep these functional plant populations.

So, without moths, we would have less decomposition, we’d have fewer plants, and we might not have any birds at all. I love those things. I want those on the earth. So, we need moths.

Shannon: Yes, and I’ve always known about baby food especially, and the role that the caterpillars play there, because a lot of the caterpillars that are fed to the nestlings are moth caterpillars. I mean, usually they’re not eating monarch caterpillars or swallowtail caterpillars or the big butterfly caterpillars.

I know a lot of people sometimes get nervous because they’re wanting to have a butterfly garden. So, are they just feeding the caterpillars to the birds? No, usually those aren’t the same caterpillars. It’s the moth caterpillars that are providing the majority of the food.

So, I’ve always known about that and then pollination as well… Wasn’t there a steady, just within the last few years, that was talking about how even with some of our crops, like apples and stuff, where the flowers bloom during the day, we think of them as being pollinated by bees and other daytime pollinators. But they found that a lot of the moths are playing a much greater role at night than we ever thought that they did.

Elena: Yeah, for sure. And pollination is so complex and interesting and there’s so many facets. And then of course, you know, we’re sleeping at night, so, so few of us wanna stay up all night watching flowers get pollinated and so we find all these amazing things, right?

I wanna just return to the butterfly garden thing for a second and birds eating caterpillars. First of all, you know, in a perfect world, there’s enough to go around. Insects lay hundreds, thousands of eggs, with the assumption that some of are going to get eaten. And that’s ok. So, when we have functional ecosystems, there’s enough for the birds and enough to keep the insect populations going.

And then moth species actually outnumber butterflies by about 10 to one worldwide. So yes, of course, the majority that are being fed are going to be moths, just by statistical probability.

Shannon: Yes. That’s a good point to bring up because I often forget just how many more moths there are because it is just, like you said, such a huge number.

Elena: Yeah. So, they outnumber butterflies by about 10 to one worldwide. It’s a little hard to tally all of the East Coast, but in New Jersey there’s between 1500 and 1600 species of moths and 52 families. So there’s a lot.

And for butterflies in New Jersey, there’s about 150 species and six families. So there’s a big differential in the number of species.

Shannon: And the numbers may not be the same, but kind of the proportions I would guess would probably be similar for most of the eastern U.S. Would that be a fair assumption?

Elena: I think so, because it sort of, also shakes out that way at the U.S. level and the world level. So, there’s about 160,000 worldwide species of moths and about 17 to 18,000 butterflies worldwide.

Shannon: Wow. Moths are so diverse. We don’t see them because they’re awake at night and we’re not, or at least we’re not outside at night a lot of times. So, we don’t see them as often and it’s so easy to…

When you’re just looking at them as somebody who doesn’t know much about moths, and I’m one of those people, I’m not a moth expert by any stretch of the imagination, to just see them as little brown things that all look kind of similar-ish.

But when you really start looking at them… I mean, yeah, you’ve got a lot of little brown things. But even the little brown things, they’re different sizes and different shapes. I mean, there’s some that I see like on the window that just have very thin bodies and very thin wings that go straight out.

For a very long time, I didn’t realize those were moths. I thought they were something else. I didn’t know what “something else” was, but they were some other kind of insect. Then I found out they were moths and I was like, “Really? That’s pretty cool!”

Then you start looking at the little brown things, a lot of them aren’t just solid brown. They’ve got really cool colors. Then there’s lots that aren’t brown at all. So yeah, the diversity is so amazing.

Elena: Yeah. And I will say that even to those of us who look at moths all the time, there are still so many of them that I still look at and I’m like, “little brown moths.” That’s fine.

It’s really difficult to ID a lot of them to species. You know, I say this as a person who looks at moths all summer often, but I still have a lot of difficulty in IDing them. And so, the inconvenient truth is that insect ID is really difficult.

There are some, you know, there are some super standout species. Some of our beautiful wild silk moths are the larger ones that people know. But moth ID in general is really difficult.

So no one should be discouraged if you get out there and you’re like, “What am I looking at?” Because I still get out there and say, “What am I looking at?”

Shannon: So, what are some of the ones that we might be more familiar with?

Elena: So, here in the East Coast we’ve got a couple of our huge, beautiful native silk moths. And so those are the ones I often get sent, you know, in email or a text, and asked like, “What is this?” So, we have our Luna moths – that’s the huge green one that is absolutely gorgeous. The Cecropia – another big moth with the distinctive eye spots.

As well as the Io, which is literally spelled I – O, Automeris io. Io moth, again, another one that’s bright yellow with those big eye spots on the hind wings. So they get a lot of attention.

There’s also a tiny one called an Ailanthus webworm, which is associated with the invasive Ailanthus trees, but they are bright orange and black. So that’s a conspicuous one that a lot of people see.

And then there are the diurnal moths. So, the daytime flying ones that people often see and don’t realize they’re looking at a moth because they’re in the genus Hemaris. They’re called the clearwings. Sometimes some people call them hummingbird moths. They’ve got clear wings like a bee.

There’s three, maybe four species in the East Coast of Hemaris that are daytime flying. People often see them, but they look like hummingbirds, and so they get mistaken for a hummingbird. Part of what I wrote my dissertation on is the genus Hemaris, so those are some of my absolute favorites to see.

Shannon: Oh yes. I think the hummingbird moths or bumblebee moths are a lot of people’s, some of their favorites, especially because we see them more often. Plus they’re just so cute hovering in front of the milkweeds or other plants.

Elena: They are so cute! Right? Look at the face. It’s so cute.

Shannon: Yeah, I get a lot of pictures of them too, as well as some of the bigger silk moths and stuff like you were talking about. And then another one I’ve been getting pictures of and I’ve found more often too recently is the eight spotted forester moth.

Elena: Mm-hmm. Those are, yeah, really striking and beautiful to look at. I mean, I love the vast majority of them. I could like list all the species and talk about why I love each one. So, a lot of people know those, those as well as the Hemaris and the Lunas and Cercropias and the Ios.

Shannon: Yeah. For me, what really attracted me to the eight spotted forester moth, which just still kind of makes me go “hmm…”, is because they’ve got those orange, puffy, fluffy things on their legs that always remind me of pollen packets on a bee. And I’m like, “Why would moth have that?”

Elena: You know, I’m actually, I’m not sure, I don’t know if anyone knows or or not. And the, problem is that not many people study those little minute details of moths. Like lots of people do, but then if you wanna just go to the level of individual species and you’re like, “Who’s studying the eight spotted forester?” It’s not that many people, unfortunately.

Shannon: Yeah, exactly. It’s one of those things that there’s always going to be more questions. And unfortunately, we have to look at where the research money’s coming from sometimes.

And yeah, I mean, I’ve tried to find it and looked through some of the research, and just general information as well as going into the scientific literature, and trying to figure it out. And I haven’t seen anything either as to why would they have those little orange, fluffy things.

I’ve seen some different hypotheses, but nothing that’s just really a, “Yeah, this is what we’ve studied. This is why we found.” And how would you even go about studying that, honestly?

Elena: I mean, I guess you could shave some of them with a tiny razor and see what happens if they don’t have them.

But yeah, moths in general are a little fuzzier and hairier than butterflies. So a main hypothesis is that they’re out at night and they need a little more insulation on their body. And then also some of those hairs are irritating and the wing scales and the hairs on the body irritate predators. So, it could be that as well.

Shannon: Interesting.

Elena: Could be combination of all those things. Could be none of it.

Shannon: I hadn’t really thought about moths in general being fuzzier than butterflies, but yeah, you’re right. And so yeah, that would make sense because well, there’s so much that eats moths too. Even the adults.

I mean, yes, we’ve already talked about the caterpillars and how they’re eaten. But I’m thinking about the night jars, like your whip-poor-wills and chuck-wills-widows and stuff. Those are night flying birds that are going to be eating them. Bats eat a lot of moths…

Elena: Yeah. Owls…

Shannon: Yeah. You don’t think of owls eating moths, but yeah, they do.

Elena: They definitely do. I have in my moth talk an excerpt from a video of an owlet. It’s grasping a pretty large moth, and the moth is flapping its wings like crazy.

You see all the wing scales and the hair is flying off the moth into the face of the owl, which is like sort of losing its grip on the moth as it slips out the talons.

So they absolutely do eat moths, some more successfully. I think the moth in that particular video does get away.

Shannon: And I guess that would be another good reason to be hairy. I mean, if you can just be losing lots of bits and pieces that don’t really matter to you, then it just makes it harder to hang onto you.

Elena: Right. Right. And if you’ve held a Lepidoptera, the wing scales can come off really easily and their wings do feel slippery. It may be to slip out of the grasp of predators.

And again, they also are an irritant. So, flying in the eyes and the mouth of the raptor may just cause it to let go, or, you know, not be able to see for a few seconds.

Shannon: Yeah. It’s interesting to just kind of think about some of these things.

So, we’ve got all these different species of moths. Do we have endangered ones? Or do we know if they’re endangered or at risk?

Elena: Yeah, so that’s a difficult question to answer. We do know that there are worldwide declines across most insect taxa. A lot of Lepidoptera are showing declines. But to my knowledge, none have been put on the official endangered or threatened list.

And again, insect populations tend to be large. They are prolific reproducers. But again, we are seeing declines across, well, we’re just seeing declines across all taxa, probably. Right? And insects are not exempt from that.

So yes, there’s evidence of moth declines. It’s again, a matter of who gets to study them, is there funding for everyone to go out and count all the moths? Is there enough data in the historical record to make definitive answers on what was the abundance and what is the abundance?

That’s actually something National Moth Week is trying to look at. So, we have data now for quite a few years in iNaturalist. That we can take a look at.

Then again, insect populations do tend to be these boom and bust cycles where there’s a big year and then the populations are down a little bit. Population genetics and population ecology, in general, is difficult with the easiest of organisms. And insects are very, very complex to study their populations.

So, that’s a really long way of saying, “No, I don’t think any of them are officially endangered. But some of them probably should be. And maybe we have even lost species before we’ve even noticed.”

Shannon: And I’m guessing it makes it even that much harder to get the information or to know, because we are talking about a group of insects that are primarily nocturnal and have a lot of very… very, difficult-to-distinguish-from-each-other species that could easily be overlooked.

Elena: Right. And some of them, you actually need to dissect them to figure out what species they are, which seems sort of counterintuitive when you’re working in conservation.

And then, you know, the ugly truth of it is that if you said to almost anybody in the world, “Hey, moth species might be declining,” the reaction would be, “Oh? Good.” Right? Or at best, “I don’t care.”

And that’s a real shame. That’s part of why I like to talk to the public about the importance and the beauty of these things.

Shannon: I’ll admit, when I was a kid, I didn’t really care about moths. They were that thing that flew around the window or got in the house and not a big deal. But as I became more interested in ecology, and saw ecology and biology as more than just the cool birds or the predators…

Because I mean, I was always the nature kid too and grew up outside, so I was always interested in that stuff. But, bugs were just something to be eaten by the other more cool things, quite honestly.

Now I realize, no, wait a minute. They’re really cool and interesting on their own and they serve these really important functions.

Elena: Yeah, for sure. And then, I wasn’t born loving moths either. Like you, I was also a nature loving kid. But didn’t, you know, didn’t really care one way or the other about insects. I didn’t hate them, but I also wasn’t the way I feel about them now.

Shannon: So we’ve mentioned National Moth Week a few times. Let’s, go ahead and talk a little bit about it.

Elena: Yeah. So, in the intro, I talked a little bit about how it got started just with these local community Moth Nights. And we were so in awe of how many people on a summer’s night really wanted to come out to East Brunswick, it was like the Friends of the East Brunswick Nature Center, and look at moths on a sheet.

And it was so fun. We had kids that started coming at like age six or seven that would come year after year, that we then saw go to college, which was incredible. Right?

And so, like I said, we just thought about it and said, “Why are we restricting this to East Brunswick? Why are we restricting it to New Jersey? Let’s see if everyone is interested.” And everyone was.

We say mothing is the new birding. I also love birding as well, but you know, it’s sort of the opposite. Right? For birding you have to get up really early, and then for mothing and you stay up really late. But then there’s that overlap in time around 4:00 AM when the mothers are still out, the birders are getting up.

And like I said, we have people participate all over the world. We’ve appointed National Moth Week coordinators in many different countries as sort of the point person for the events for that country.

So all of this can be found at That’s our website. If you are interested in learning about moths and mothing, as the activity, we’ve got resources on there of what to do. There’s some videos that some of our members have made about how to look for moths. And as well, you can look for events in your local area.

National Moth Week is always the last full week of July. This will be our 12th National Moth Week, which is crazy. Right? So, it’s gonna be July 22nd through 30th this year. You can go to our website and you’ll see a big countdown to when the week begins.

And you can click on the map and you’ll find events near you. So, if you’d like to go to a mothing event, all the public and private events are listed on this map. You can just sort of zoom in on your area.

If you’d like to host an event, it can be really as simple as “I’m turning on my porch light in my backyard and sitting out with a lemonade.” And you can list that as private so no one else shows up to your own house. And that’s fine. Or you can find the nature centers near you.

So that’s a really good resource. Again, there’s the events map, there’s resources, how to find moths, how to contact us. And we do ask that, if you want to, I mean, there’s no real pressure to do it, but this is a community science project.

So a community science project is where we, as scientists, ask the public to aid us in our data collection, because there’s a handful of moth researchers in the world, and there’s many people who are just interested in moths but may not be a full-time moths researcher. And so you can submit data a couple of ways. And the main way, the best way, I think the easiest and most fun way, is via the app iNaturalist, which you’re probably familiar with.

iNaturalist is so fun. I always sound like an advertisement. I mean, if they want to sponsor me, fine… But iNaturalist, for listeners that might not know, and you’ve probably talked about it on your podcast before, you take a photo of your organism. It’s sort of algorithmic at first. To suggest what you might have seen, but then is verified by other people in the app.

And so during National Moth Week any Lepidoptera, any moth sightings, any moth observations, are automatically pulled into our project. So, you don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is take your picture in iNaturalist and it’s automatically submitted to us.

Shannon: That is awesome. And I think we should probably mention that you’re talking about the iNaturalist app itself, and not Seek, correct?

Elena: So, right. I use iNaturalist. I don’t use Seek too often. So, yes, please use the full iNaturalist app.

And we had, I think over a hundred thousand observations in the 2022 National Moth Week. So, we get lots and lots of really cool data.

Like we had alluded to moth ID is hard. So, stuff like iNaturalist makes your life so much easier. And you don’t actually have to say, “add to project,” or anything. We have it set up that any moth observations during the week of National Moth Week are pulled in. So we ask that you, please, just try to do that.

Shannon: That’s awesome and provides so much more data. Because like we were talking about earlier, it’s not really known for a lot of these what the ranges are, or what the populations are, or what a lot of the information is. And part of that’s because there aren’t a lot of moth researchers. There’s not a lot of funding.

The few moth researchers can only be in one place at a time. They’re just like the rest of us. But if everybody’s taking pictures in their own locations and are submitting that, then suddenly it’s just so much more information there that’s available.

They can just go through the information that’s there. They don’t have to go to each location and try and spend the night collecting data.

Elena: Which, I mean, believe me, if I could be paid to just fly around the world looking at moths… That would be a dream job. Right? But that’s not reality.

And then another thing that I’m really particularly interested with our dataset that, because we’re a group of volunteers I have not yet fully delved into, is we’re getting kind of a long term dataset now. And I’d love to take a look at what we call phenology shift.

So, phenology is the timing of biological events. When do trees bloom? When do certain plants bloom? And so, one aspect of moth phenology is are they emerging from chrysalis at different times now? Is that following a climate shift?

And when we see these phenology shifts, are we seeing a mismatch between the plants that are pollinated by these species and the emergence of the species themselves? That can be catastrophic ecologically. Or we can see the same phonology shift happening in tandem. Right?

And so these are some really cool questions that we can potentially answer with our dataset, maybe, if we chose a few target species and looked between the 12 years of data we have. Are we seeing them emerge earlier in the season? Cause it’s warmer. Or are we seeing them later into the fall because it’s warmer later into the fall?

Are we still in sync with the birds that need them? Right? Because bird migrations aren’t tied to temperature. They’re tied to timing. And so we might be seeing massive mismatches in these phenologies.

Shannon: Yeah. There’s so many questions that can be answered. Or questions that can be asked, and potentially start looking at answers for. I mean, every good research project, I think, creates more questions than it creates answers to. But there’s at least opportunities there to start looking at things when you’ve got the data. If you don’t have the data, you don’t have even a place to start.

Elena: Mm-hmm.

Shannon: Now you talked about mothing. So I’m sure the website has a lot of this. But for those of our listeners that are kind of going, “Okay… mothing? What’s that?” Let, let’s talk a little bit about that and give them some details.

Elena: Yeah, so how do we do the verb “to moth”? So, we know that moths are attracted to light, and we’ll get into a little bit more of that later on, I’m sure. But we know that moths are attracted to light, so we’ll keep it at that for now. So that’s the easiest way to attract them – is to turn on a light.

If you’re just starting out, I recommend a regular light bulb in your regular light fixture and see if you have fun doing this. Right? So, all you have to do is turn on your light. If it’s next to a wall, that’s perfect because they’ll need a place to land. So just your regular porch light will work and you just sit out there. That was the fun part of my dissertation, just sitting back next to my moth light drinking coffee to try to stay up all night and seeing what comes in.

And then if you get a little more into it, you can upgrade. Right? And so professionals, those of us who are professionals, use these full spectrum light bulbs so they have every wavelength of light. Now, what wavelength attracts the most moths, again, it’s a subject that is much debated. And so why not just use all the wavelengths? So you can get these full spectrum bulbs, or you can get a black light, both of which work.And set those up.

Now, if you’d like to go away from your home and go out into a forested area, with permission, of course you can get a variety of things. So, I like to use because of the portability just an old bedsheet and a rope that I tie between two trees. And then I set my light up in front of it.

You can also get a freestanding sheet. It’s sort of like a tent pole type tension rod. You make an arch and stick it in the ground, and you can have freestanding sheet like that. And so those are really portable.

Some people run lights off their car batteries. At this point in my mothing career, I’m like, “I have a lot of extension cords. We gotta have a power source somewhere.” But for my dissertation, I actually brought out a gas generator to run in some of the more remote locations.

So, there’s a big spectrum of things that you can do. You can just flip on your porch light and that works just fine. Or you can really get into it with the full spectrum bulbs, a free freestanding sheets, the generators, and all of that. So that’s one way to do it.

You can also attract a slightly different suite of species with fermented scents. So, a couple days before you want to do your mothing, you crack open some beers. I like to get something nice that I also want to drink, so I’m sharing. I like to share a beer with the moths.

Pour that into a container with whatever old fruit you have. Cover, cover it. I cannot emphasize enough, cover it. Unless you love fruit flies, which maybe you do, cover it and let it sit on your countertop at room temperature for a few days, so it’s really nice and fermented.

And then take a paintbrush and paint it on trees, and then let it sit. Come back a little while later with a flashlight and you’ll get a different set than necessarily comes to light. That’s the second way.

The third way is that caterpillars are fluorescent in UV lights. So you can get a UV flashlight from anywhere you like to purchase things on the internet. I’m not advertising for that website, but a UV flashlight. And you can just crawl around in your plants and see lots of different insects. The caterpillars will be these bright fluorescent objects, but you’ll see lots of eyes shine from cool spiders, from katydids, from all kinds of stuff.So that’s a fun way.

And then the other thing you can do is take your suet cage that you’re maybe not using in the summertime because the suet melts or you don’t feed birds in the summer, which is fine, and fill it with fruit. Butterflies and moths really love to come to that as well.

And you know, I would really be remiss if I didn’t say that a healthy planting of native plants is really essential. I know you do want to talk about threats to moths. And I will say over and over again, a healthy ecosystem is the best attractor for any kind of wildlife.

Having diverse native plants that are appealing to moths is going to be step, you know, step zero. You could set up all the lights you want, but if you’ve got a monoculture of grass that you’ve killed everything with pesticide, you’re not going to see anything.

Shannon: Yeah, and like you said, it’s that healthy ecosystem and providing that healthy ecosystem that is so important. Not just for songbirds and butterflies and bees and everything that we think of a lot of times when we’re starting to create those native plant gardens, but also for moths and just everything out there.

You can’t just have a butterfly garden. It really needs to be that miniature ecosystem because then you’ve got everything supporting each other.

And like you said, there are way more moth eggs, way more butterfly eggs, way more any type of insect egg that’s laid than the system could ever support. So, we need those predators that are actually going to help to kind of reduce those numbers and keep everything in balance too.

Elena: Yeah. Absolutely. Right. It’s a whole system. It’s a whole, interconnected web. And while, you know, we could get into the ecology of functional redundancy, we need everything. We need the whole system in order for everything to function.

And it’s just like, it’s beautiful. Like it’s this beautiful, incredible web of life that we don’t think about. Or at worst we want to get rid of because we don’t like bugs.

Shannon: Right. Now I have a question. I just thought of this. You were talking about putting the sheets out or the lights out and staying up all night watching. Do different moth species come out at different times of the night? Or is it just kind of the same suite of moths the whole night?

Elena: Yeah. They actually do. So, some of them are what we call crepuscular, which is that day to night changes – the twilight, essentially. And then some of them really don’t like to even roll outta bed till 2:30 AM. And so through the night, you’re going to see different ones. At least in my experience with mothing you do.

And if you really want to see the giant silk moths, I find they are like the latest. The ones that are coming out in the real middle of the night.

A lot of the hawk moths that I studied for my dissertation tend to be more of the crepuscular earlier evening ones, although some of the species do come out late, because they are foraging for flowers. And the darker it is, the harder it is for them to see them. Right? Of course, they sense them olfactorily through the floral volatile chemicals, but sight does play a role.

Whereas the silk moths actually don’t eat So they don’t take in nectar. They’re not pollinators. And so they have no need to see flowers. And so, I guess the safest time from birds might be the middle of the night. That’s just a hypothesis. I don’t know for sure.

Shannon: I mean, it would make sense. It amazed me when I first realized that a lot of our moths don’t eat as adults. Because I just kind of assumed that everything ate as an adult. And then I found that out, and I was like, “Wait a minute. Wow. That’s really interesting in and of itself.”

Elena: Yeah. The majority of their life they’re a caterpillar. And I always say the book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the classic, is a work of nonfiction. A caterpillar’s main purpose is to eat and eat and eat and eat. They can gain so much nutrition as caterpillars and live such short lives as adults where their role is to find a mate and that’s it.

And they don’t need to live very long. And I mean, it makes a sighting of them even more incredible and special that you’ve caught them in that two week period that they’re out and flying around.

Shannon: Yeah, exactly.

So we talked about native plants but I’m assuming that with moths, it’s just like every other type of organism. Not all native plants serve the same functions or are equally good for any particular organism or any particular species. I mean, that’s why we have so many. We need a diversity of everything.

If somebody wanted to do a moth garden, how would they… what would they need to be planting or thinking about? Whether that’s species or shapes of plants or genera that they need to look at. What are some of those guidelines?

Elena: The good thing is that if you’ve got plants for a butterfly garden, a lot of them can be used by moths too. So, you might be 75% of the way there with your butterfly garden.

Lepidoptera have complex lifecycles. They need host plants and they need nectar plants.
And sometimes there’s overlap and sometimes there’s not. The host plant is what the larva, the caterpillar, eats. Then nectar plants are what the adults drink from. So there tends to be a little bit more specialization in host plants than nectar plants.

Nectar is the sugar water that flowers produce specifically for pollinators to drink, and host plants are when the caterpillars are eating the leaves. So, there’s a little bit of a mutualist-antagonist thing going on. Right? Because plants don’t necessarily love to have their leaves eaten. They need those. Whereas a flower, they’re like, “this is for you to eat.”

Particularly for moths, we’re looking for plants that have a strong scent because again, at night, moths are extremely well tuned to floral volatile chemicals. So, strong scents that’s going to be one of the primary ways that they find their nectar flowers.

And lots of nectar. So again, it’s a little colder at night. And moths, especially the larger bodied ones like the Sphingidae, the hawk moths, with their really fast flight and their big bodies, they need a lot of fuel. So, lots of nectar.

And then a moth mouth part is called a proboscis, your listeners probably know this. It’s that’s straw-like mouth part that they use to drink nectar. And so to accommodate a proboscis, more of a tubular shaped flower is better. And that’s not to say that, I mean, they’ll get nectar from whatever’s available. Right? If they can get their proboscis to it, that’s what they’ll drink from.

So, some particular plants that I love to recommend for moth gardens that maybe you have, maybe you don’t. One of my number one favorites is coral honeysuckle, our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. First of all, it’s so beautiful for yourself to look at. So why wouldn’t you want this, right?

Shannon: And then hummingbirds, you can’t forget the hummingbirds.

Elena: Exactly. It attracts hummingbirds during the day. So, who sits there going, “I hate hummingbirds”? Right? Nobody. Literally no one. And so that one is a really good resource for moths at night.

Evening primrose is another good one for moths, obviously. It’s right there in the name “evening primrose.” And our native phlox which many people have in their butterfly gardens. They come in a huge range of colors. The yellows, the whites, and the light pinks are especially good for moths.

And then one of my favorite shrubs is buttonbush. People shy away from buttonbush. They’re like, “Oh, that’s a wetland plant.” I have a buttonbush in my backyard. I do not live in a wetland. Maybe I give it a little extra water during drought times, but otherwise it thrives. It’s about to bloom. The flowers are so cool and interesting, and they attract butterflies in the day and moths at night.

Shannon: And hummingbirds, and bees and…

Elena: hover flies, everything. Right? So don’t hesitate to put in a buttonbush. It took a few years for mine to get to blooming age, but it is so worth it. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be in a wetland. Right? My backyard is a regular backyard.

Shannon: Oh yes. That’s what I always tell people too. Put it in an area that gets a little bit extra moisture. It doesn’t have to be wet. Or be ready to put it somewhere that you can water to it if the rain spigot turns off in April and doesn’t turn back on until September. We get those years sometimes.

Elena: Absolutely. And then stuff you might have in your butterfly garden – the beebalm, the Liatris, cone flowers, milkweed – is a fine nectar resource for moths, as well. So, you know, that classic suite of native plants that everyone that’s a native plant gardener loves. Great. Perfect. Keep them.

And then the larval host plants, I mean, are so diverse. Right? Pretty much if there’s a plant, there’s a species of moth that eats it. And of course, someone always asks me, “Wait, wait. I really want the giant silk moths. How do I get those?”

And we just said, there’s no nectar resources that you can provide for them, but you can provide larval host plants. The problem is they love the deciduous hardwood trees. So it’s a little harder to get established. But, what do they say? “The best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago, and the second best time is today.”

So, you can plant some hardwood trees. Or you can do some outreach of your own to encourage your town to keep hardwood trees or plant hardwood trees.

Shannon: Yes. Because a lot of times at that point, we’re looking for the big flashy adults, but the adults are going to go where the baby food is. And in this case, the baby food’s the host plant. So they have to lay their eggs there.

Plus the caterpillars themselves… I mean, oh my gosh. They are amazing sometimes. And yeah, they’re just so cool.

Elena: Yeah, right. The caterpillars themselves are beautiful and interesting and fun to watch. And you know, what’s not to love?

Shannon: Yeah, exactly. Some of them, I think the caterpillars are actually more interesting than the adults are. And I can find the caterpillars during the day.

Elena: Yeah, exactly.

Shannon: Well, sometimes. They’re usually hiding; trying not to be found because they don’t want to get eaten.

Elena: If you’re going looking for them and if you know where to look, you can find them. And like I said, you can also find them at night with the UV flashlight.

Shannon: I didn’t know about that. I’m going to have to get me a UV flashlight now and start playing. I’ve been saying I wanted a UV flashlight for a while. The reasons just keep adding up.

Elena: Mm-hmm. All the more reason to get one. And my colleague Dave Moskowitz, one of the other Moth Week founders, actually published a paper on finding moth caterpillars with UV flashlights.

Shannon: Oh cool, I may have to look that one up then.

What are some of those other threats to moths? I know we said we don’t know exactly what’s going on with them, but what are some of the potential threats?

Elena: Some of them we do know for sure. So, the number one threat to wildlife worldwide, whether you are a lion or a tiger, a panda bear, or a moth, is habitat loss. And there’s different scales, of course. So, habitat loss is the number one driver of wildlife declines globally, and in particular for insects, including moths.

Our national obsession with lawns is really detrimental to insect life. And so instead of being stewards of our land and making sure that we can provide some habitat along with our homes, instead of having a beautiful and diverse native planting, people tend to favor monoculture lawns.

And I’m not saying that you can have no lawn at all, because I too like to sit in my yard and have a little picnic, and that’s fine. That’s okay. But we really do need to start thinking about how it is that we can coexist with these organisms. So reducing lawn is one.

And then I always say, and this makes me unpopular but I don’t care, if I could uninvent one machine it would be the leaf blower. So, putting aside the noise and air pollution, which are major problems for human health, both noise and air pollution. Leaf litter is a major form of habitat for insects.

So for moths, for butterflies, for lightning bugs, for many of our beloved insects, and the ones people don’t like as well, they overwinter in leaf litter at the base of trees. And what do we do with leaf litter? We blow it away and we put it in plastic bags, and then we put it in a landfill.

And so, you can just leave the leaf litter on the grass. And again, there’s a balance. Clear it from the sidewalk, so people have room to walk. Don’t slide around in leaf litter. That’s fine. I, as an ecologist and lazy person, do not remove a single leaf from my lawn space, my native plant area. I have a lot of clover portions of my lawn, and the grass is fine. So, it comes back a little more slowly. It greens up a little more slowly.

But you know, I like to tell people I give you permission to enjoy fall. Go out looking at leaves. Go out apple picking instead of raking and leaf blowing and spending all of your time and energy cleaning up. Who wants to do that?

You’re reducing habitat. You’re causing direct mortality to insects, and in particular our wild silk moths that everybody loves. They overwinter, some of them are up hanging in trees, but many of them are wrapped in a leaf, in their silk, in leaf litter. So, it’s really essential that we stop doing this.

And then some people say, “Oh, I mulch my leaves and I put them in my garden.” Well, ok, that’s a little better. But if you put an insect through your mulching mower, it doesn’t live.

So, it will benefit society to have less of this – the noise pollution, the air pollution, the time and energy and thought that goes into maintaining lawns. When it could be a native plant garden that if you’re planting native perennials requires very little maintenance after the first year or two.

And the amount of fertilizers and pesticides that we put into our lawns are not good for insects. Right? For the purpose of what? And again, like I said, have a little space for your kids, for your dogs, to sit on your deck and enjoy a summer evening. That’s fine. But there has to be balance.

Shannon: Finding that balance and making room for everyone and everything is something that I talk a lot about. And yeah, I also say everything that you just said. And it’s like, okay, my husband and I, neither one of us like to mow.

We love fall. We love the fall leaves. Everybody goes out and looks at the fall leaves in the woods and in the pristine areas. And what do they love? The fall colors on the trees and on the ground. Why can’t I enjoy that in my yard?

And yeah, I’ve also heard that, “Oh, but it’ll kill my grass.” And I’m like, if it was that easy to kill grass, every one of my yards would’ve been dead a million times. I wish it was that easy to kill grass.

Elena: True. I say I try to kill grass and it’s still here.

Shannon: Yeah. I have never killed grass by leaving the leaves that fell on it. But yeah, like you said, definitely find that balance. Get the leaves off the sidewalk or so they don’t blow into the street. Those are safety issues that in urban, suburban environments around our homes and our built landscapes we have to think about those things. But that’s not the whole entire yard.

Elena: Absolutely. So, habitat loss and our mania with the maintenance of lawns, that’s a huge threat to insects, including moths.

Another one, something we don’t think of as pollution, is light. So, moths are nocturnal, and you know, along with the other nocturnal organisms, they rely on darkness. Darkness is a form of habitat. So, light pollution.

I live in very suburban, northern New Jersey. And I can walk outside at night and it is like daylight, and it drives me crazy. There’s that diffuse light pollution that’s sort of making, especially urban areas, generally less dark. And then there’s the directed point light pollution, like the streetlights or the light on your house.

So, what’s the problem with light? Again, nocturnal organisms need darkness. Then when we’re talking about what we call the point source light pollution, like streetlights or your porch light or whatever, there’s a couple of problems with that.

A lot of people know moths are attracted to light and we can use that to our advantage when we’re trying to study them. So, why are moths attracted to light? The inconvenient truth there is with animal behavior, you can never ask them.

Believe me, I have asked, “Why are you doing this?” But they never answer me.

So, the best explanation is that many nocturnal organisms – bats, sea turtles – use the brightest object in the sky as a navigational aid. And that should be the moon. But when we make an artificial brightest light in the sky, the animals can be confused by that.

And so, they fly to these light sources, thinking or you know in the sense, that they are navigating via the moon. But then they get to the light and they’re sort of dazzled. And then it’s brighter than daylight and it’s time to roost. So there’s the problem.

So what, what are the other problems there? So, collision and incineration. Oftentimes lights get really hot and so they can directly collide with the lights and burn to death instantaneously. If they don’t fly directly into the light, they can just sort of fly around. You notice that they make these like circles and figures around it? And that can cause fatal exhaustion.

So, it wastes their time and it wastes their energy. And some of them have these preciously short lives. And it’s a little sad to think about them wasting that time flying around the light when they should be foraging, or they should be mating, or they just exhaust their energy supply.

So, it disrupts their circadian rhythm. Like I said, often when they get to a light, they roost. They hang on and they go into their sleep phase. Light at night also disrupts the circadian rhythms of humans, might I add. Right? You’re not supposed to stare your phone.

So, it disrupts circadian rhythms and it opens them up to increased predation. Oftentimes when you’ve left your light on all night – and I always say when you’re going mothing, you must turn the lights off after you’re done and shoo them all away – it opens them up to increased predation. If you don’t, or if you leave your porch lights on all night… Birds and bats are smart. They learn to hunt at these places. So, when the birds wake up, they’re like, “Let’s go check out some lights. There’s lots of sleeping food there.”

So, all of that leads to decreased diversity, broken food webs, bird declines, decreased pollination, decreased all of the good stuff that they contribute to ecosystems. And again, just like with lawns, I’m also a person that needs to go places at night. Sometimes probably more than other people when I’m going out to do my research at night. Right?

There are ways to have nighttime lighting that are not as harmful. Dark sky doesn’t have to mean dark ground. We can shield our lights. We can change the timing so that they’re not on indiscriminately all night. You can change the temperature of the lighting, like in terms of the luminosity and the hue of the lighting. And again, shield it so that the lighting is directed down to the ground.

Shannon: That’s also helpful for us too. Because, a lot of times what I hear is, “Oh, but I need it for security purposes.” But a lot of times the unshielded light, it glares. So you actually see less than if you’ve got it shielded or directed down.

Elena: So actually there’s not a ton of clear evidence for increased outdoor lighting and reduced crime or reducing accidents. So, if people want to check out, that’s a major resource for increasing that nighttime habitat in terms of darkness, but also coexisting with the fact that humans need to go places at night.

So, you know, I’m not saying we can’t have a lawn or we can’t have any night lighting, but again, we need to change these things to do better. And often in doing better, it’s better for us too. Right? So, you know, I get satisfaction out of my native plant garden. It’s better to not have bright lights at night. It’s better for your sleep, which is better for your health.

Reducing leaf blowers and gas powered lawnmowers, that’s better for our air quality and better for noise control, which there have just been a bunch of studies come out about how bad noise is for humans. Low level noise all the time actually increases the incidence of heart disease. So again, providing habitat, reducing light at night, are key factors in conservation for a lot of nocturnal organisms, not just moths.

Shannon: As well as helping ourselves.

Elena: As well as helping ourselves. So, everybody benefits here.

Shannon: And those are things that we often don’t even think about, but they are so vitally important to so many different organisms. I know when I was a kid, we had a motion sensor detector on the front porch. So somebody came up on the porch or something, the light would come on. Which is a great way to have the light there when you need it, not when you don’t.

We had a wren that nested also on the front porch every year. Mom’s favorite hanging basket that she just put up, brand new one that she’d get, immediately that was always the one that the wrens chose to nest in. But one year, the wrens somehow learned that when the light came on, it stayed on long enough that it started to attract insects.

So all of a sudden the light would come on at night. We’d be sitting in the living room and dad would go, “Huh, what’s that?” He’d get up and he’d go look in the window and nothing would be there. The light would go off and a few minutes later the light would come back on again. Finally we saw it was the wren. It would fly through, turn on the light, wait for the bugs, and then pick off bugs.

And that sounds kinda like, “Cool. Getting more food.” But, I think it was last year in one of my podcast episodes, I was talking to somebody who was studying light pollution and birds. They’re finding out that the nestlings might get more food, but they’re not incorporating it into their body. They’re not having the sleep time for that protein to actually be assimilated and to have the right growth. So, they were actually losing weight. They weren’t growing as big or as fast as ones that were in the dark.

So, there’s all these other aspects too that we don’t even think about. Like we said before, it’s all kind of interconnected and complicated, but very interesting and fascinating too.

Elena: Everything needs to sleep. Sleep is essential to health. And I had read some studies that with the nighttime wakefulness, and also some noise studies, that the nestlings have increased stress hormones in their blood and don’t thrive the way that they should.

Shannon: Right. Yeah, making a better habitat for all the wildlife and insects that we’ve got around us makes a better habitat for us too.

Elena: So, whenever I talk about moths and we talk about conservation, actually about 40% of insect pollinators are experiencing declines. And that’s just at sort of the latest count, which was not that recent. So, we really do need to start thinking about ways that we can coexist. And so, I like to always include a quote from this incredibly good resource for people who are wanting to think more about and get more into conservation in your own backyard.

It’s from an author called Doug Tallamy, who is a lepidopteran researcher. He and his group are one of the major sources of those findings on how important caterpillars are to nestling birds. And he wrote this book called Nature’s Best Hope. I really recommend it to people who want to start thinking about how they can make their yards into a more wildlife friendly place and start thinking about how you can change over some of your old ways to a more sustainable way. And this particular quote really really brings home what we’re talking about here.

And he says, “Humans would last only a few months if insects were to disappear from Earth. It’s remarkable then that our cultural relationship with insects is not one of awe and appreciation, but one of disgusted and animosity. We have created a culture in which insects and their arthropod relatives are maligned. In the name of protecting crops and fighting a few disease vectors, we have declared war on all insects, and we kill them whenever we can. We are winning our war against insects at our own peril.”

Shannon: He’s right. Insects are so important in the whole ecosystem and what they can contribute to everything. I think that’s a great way to wrap it up. This has been really fascinating, really interesting, and I hope that a lot of our listeners will participate in National Moth Week.

Oh, let me ask real quick… National Moth Week is one week, and you said that everything that goes to iNaturalist that’s a moth will automatically be put in there. Is there a way to contribute after National Moth Week?

Elena: I think that you can still put your observations into the project. But, just because it’s only one week to focus on moths doesn’t mean we forget about them for the rest of the year. So, I encourage everybody throughout the entire mothing season to take a look at moths and record those observations whenever you can. Because if you make your iNaturalist data public, it can still be part of a major dataset.

Whether it’s our group or another moth researcher group, it doesn’t matter. You’re part of something bigger in terms of contributing to our global understanding of the range of moths and other insects. And again, like I mentioned, those potential phenology changes or just who knows? Maybe you’ll find a species in your county or in your state that hadn’t been recorded there before.

Shannon: And with as few moth researchers as we have and as many different species of moths that’s out there, that actually doesn’t have bad odds of being able to do that.

Elena: Yeah, that’s true.

Shannon: Well, thank you so much for spending the time to talk with us and helping us learn a little bit more about moths. This, like I said, has been really fascinating and interesting.

Elena: Thank you for having me. It’s been really fun, and I would love to hear from anybody if they want to contact me. If you would like me to give a talk for you or just to talk about moths, please get in touch.

Shannon: And I will have links in the show notes. I can put your email address in there so people can get in contact with you. I’ll have the National Moth Week link in there, and several other links as well. Yeah, thanks again, and I hope you have a great day.

Elena: Thank you. You too.

Shannon: All right. Thanks. Bye-bye.

I appreciate Elena taking the time to share her love of moths, some of the key roles they play in the ecosystem, how helping moths also helps us, and much more. I highly recommend checking out the National Moth Week website and and participating if you are able.

Incorporating native plants into your landscape is a great way to improve the habitat in your yard for moths, butterflies, and just about every other type of animal that visits your property. If you want to learn more about gardening with native plants, then you can receive a free copy of our e-book, An Introduction to Gardening with Native Plants: Hardiness Zones and Ecoregions, when you subscribe to our email. Subscribe at

Until next week I encourage you to take some time to explore the nature in your backyard.

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Episode image:

  • IO moth
  • Photo credit: lightbed, cc-0

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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3 thoughts on “Moths: Unsung Heroes of Pollination and Beyond”