The Unsung Glory of the Moth
You can clip its wings but you'll never discover its secret.
Generally, the first thing we think of when contemplating the moth is usually 'small, ugly, little butterflies that come out at night and eat our clothes,' and we would be right, but only to a very small extent.
Despite what you might think, many moths are actually diurnal insects – or day-time fliers. They can be as big as a dinner plate or as tiny as a fly, and some are even more stunning than butterflies, with bright colours and flamboyant wings. And there really is only one species of moth that actually eats clothes, the Tineola bisselliella or 'the common clothes moth'.
The moth even outnumbers the butterfly 9 to 1, with the butterfly having a total of 17 500 recorded species and the moth with over 160 000. Although they certainly look fluffy, the moth, like the butterfly, are covered in fine scales. They both fall under the same class of insect: Lepidoptera which literally means 'scaly wings'.
Different shapes and sizes
Moths are also great impersonators, from bees to leaves to spiders (and even snakes) different species can look like almost anything. The Hornet Clearwing, which lives in the colder climates of Europe, looks like a hornet, with a black and yellow body and crystal-like wings. Yet despite their appearance, they are perfectly harmless, and actually quite beautiful. The Hummingbird hawk-moth, from America, looks like – you guessed it – a Hummingbird. These moths drink nectar, pollinate plants and can even fly sideways or backwards.
Probably the most amazing is the Wood Nymph Moth which looks like bird droppings. They are found in the Eastern United States and despite their mimicry, they do reflect their namesake and can also be quite beautiful.
But not all predators are fooled by disguises, and some moths have forgone wild colours to don something even more sinister.
If you want to avoid being eaten, don't be delicious, or better yet, be poisonous.
The Garden Tiger Moth is indigenous to Europe and parts of Asia. Despite its small size, this little guy is very toxic to other animals. When eaten by a predator a neurotoxin is released into the body and can spread quickly. Though it normally can't kill, it can make the attacker groggy and sick for days.
These little tigers might be fierce but they are considerate in a way. When threatened they spread their upper wings, flashing the two red ones underneath. It acts as a warning to all animals not to eat them unless they're in the mood for some food poisoning.
The Oak Processionary is another toxic moth also from Europe. Though not as pretty as the Tiger Moth, it certainly doesn't slack on the toxin.
Found in Oak forests these caterpillars have tiny hairs that become airborne. It creates skin irritation and makes it hard to breathe, but thankfully they're not toxic enough to kill, just enough to ruin your day.
One of the more interesting theories regarding moths is how they navigate. Some scientists believe that nocturnal moths use the stars and moon to plan their journeys. They adjust their angle according to the celestial lights and navigate by keeping those stars at that angle. Much in the same way sailors used to use the stars to navigate the seas. But if the moon and stars are hidden, they will focus on other signals, like the Earth's magnetic fields. They can use the field much like a compass.
One might think this is the reason why moths are drawn to artificial lights, but strangely this has nothing to do with it. Scientists have been trying to figure out why they fly towards candles, but they're still not sure. Some believe candles and lights give off ultra-violet light which might look like food, or the light could produce a chemical that is akin to female pheromones.
There really is no straight answer for why the moth is drawn to the flame.
Folklore and Supersition
Apart from their natural beauty and abilities, the moth has inspired interesting superstitions and stories over the years. In Mexico, they believe that if a large black moth sits above your front door a family member will die soon. In the same country, a white moth represents a lost soul, and so you should be hospitable and help it on its way, so it can find a way to the afterlife.
The Luna Moth from North America.
The Luna Moth, an insect from North America represent the continuing quest for knowledge, truth, and heightened awareness. Because they live only for a week, the moth must seek and absorb everything it can, thus being the very essence of learning and understanding everything in a small window of time.
And above and beyond their beauty, abilities, and legends, moths also help us directly. We can make silk from their pulpa's (or cocoons), which is the largest trade in Asia, and the Atlas Moth's cocoons are strong enough to be made into fine purses.
The Atlas Moth is the largest in the world, with a wingspan of 25 centimetres. That's about the size of your dinner plate. Whereas the smallest moth is an unnamed moth from the Congo with a wingspan of only 1 millimetre.
Moths are also better pollinators than butterflies. Particularly the Humming-bird hawk-moth. Their fluffy legs enable them to pick up a lot more pollen, which helps the ecosystem and lets the flowers grow much more plentiful, enabling bees to make more honey in turn.
And finally, they are quite a delicacy, around 90% of the African population eat them. They offer a lot of benefits to the immune system: from healthy fats to protein, they are packed with vitamins, and they're easy to catch. Just don't go out and eat any of them on your own, because some of them are still poisonous!
So maybe moths aren't as flashy as butterflies (some are) and maybe they do eat our clothes (most don't) but for such a small insect, which gives so much for so little, they certainly are magnificent little things.