Nature Wisdom

Pat Tuholske

By Pat Tuholske
May 2021

Moths the Super Pollinators

When the stars blaze across the sky and we are tucked inside, after butterflies are done for the day, moths are just starting their work. You may see them dancing around street lights, but they actually spend most of their night visiting flowers. The work these nocturnal pollinators do is far bigger and more complex than many realize. While bees remain the world’s prime pollinators, the “night shift” should not be overlooked.

New research has found that moths visit a surprisingly diverse range of plants at night. More plant species than bees. Because moths operate under the cover of darkness, they have been less studied and offered fewer protections. Studies suggest that moths are better at pollinating than previously thought.

The partnership between plant and pollinator, is mutually beneficial. As the moth feeds on nectar, the existence of the flower species continues. Just a few of the plants that attract moths include honeysuckle, rose, sumac, apple, pine, cherry, four o’clocks, petunia, monarda, salvia, bluestem grass, moonflower, foxglove. Pollen transport by moths may play an important role in facilitating genetic diversity in plant communities across landscapes, as adult moths tend to move over much longer distances between patches of plants than bees.

Moths aren’t the only contenders in the night pollinating game. Flies, beetles, and even mosquitoes visit flowers at night seeking nectar and spreading pollen in the process. As moths and other insects feed on nectar, they pick up pollen on wings, legs, antenna. As they move on to other flowers, they spread the pollen from plant to plant.

Nocturnal pollinators that depend on darkness to do their work are being robbed of the night. Growing evidence shows excessive artificial light has negative effects on natural ecosystems. Night creatures are being distracted and disoriented as nights grow ever brighter. Finding food depends on the ability to experience natural darkness. Nocturnal visits to plants are reduced by sixty two percent in areas with artificial illumination compared to dark areas. Turn off any unnecessary outdoor lighting. Make sure any exterior lighting is shielded and facing down. Consider using yellow or red tinted bulbs. Keep your garden dark and free of lights.

Twelve thousand moth species occur in North America and most of these are nocturnal. Outnumbering butterflies, moths are significant pollinators. Thirty three percent of all pollination occurs after sundown.

Much less vibrant than butterflies, moth’s coloration varies from grey, brown and rust. Moths typically fold their wings back over or at an angle to their body looking triangular. Antennae are often shaped like feathers. Moth pupae usually inhabit leaf litter so avoid getting rid of your leaves and doing spring clean up. You’ll be helping, not destroying, future pollinators.

I’ve always had a fondness for the mighty moth and didn’t realize until the last decade how important moths are to the Earth’s survival. Hopefully night pollinators are thriving in all the darkest of places. We need them.

See Pat’s Wild Wreaths, Twig and Feather Art crafted from Ozark native flora and fauna at WillowRainHerbalGoods.com and at Green Door Art Gallery. Check out her Field Journal for musings on the Human-Nature relationship