The Idiot’s Guide to Everything: Moths

Posted on January 25, 2014


There are few things more beautiful in nature than the good ol’ butterfly. Kids love the things, nature programmes go batty for them, David Attenborough will always wax lyrical about the glory of the schmetterling. Personally, I’m ambivalent towards them, but what else would be expected. But with all the love and adoration that gets bestowed upon the colourful winged beasts, it is surprising that their slightly dour cousins get such short shrift. The only thing people really seem to know about the moth is that they annoy you when you are trying to sleep and they are dumb when it comes to flying into light. One of my favourite Bill Hicks jokes was indeed moth related. I once killed a moth in my bedroom at Anglican Court and left it on the wall as a warning to all other moths. People often kill moths without a second thought, when similar treatment of the delightful butterfly would bring about scorn. Why? What is there to dislike about the moth? Indeed, how can people be so bad towards something they know nothing about? Lets go ahead and learn something about these misunderstood beasts.

Moths belong, along with butterflies, to the order Lepidoptera, which means ‘scale winged’. There are an estimated 160,000 (!) species of butterfly, which is thought to be nearly 10 times the number of butterfly species. Indeed, it is believed that butterflies are a small offshoot group that arose from the moth family, kinda like when the New World Order had the Wolfpac offshoot in WCW. Yes, thats a wrestling analogy when talking about moths and butterflies. Both moths and butterflies share the same life span, going from caterpillar to cocoon to adult. The name ‘moth’ is thought to have come from the Olde English word for maggot, which again isn’t the most pleasant connotation. In many parts of the world they are seen as an agricultural pest, and cause much damage to farms and forest. Many moth larvae eat fabrics as well, greedy buggers. They have standards though, and mostly go for fine silk. Despite this, it is believed that most moth adults don’t eat at all, as they have no mouth. Unfortunate.

Moths are found all over the world. They are almost exclusively nocturnal, which accounts for their darkened colour in comparison to the butterfly. Unfortunately, or maybe logically, the majority of animals that feed on moths, such as bats, owls and numerous other birds, are mostly nocturnal as well. This has led to some very interesting evolutions within the moth. For instance, it is now believed that the ultrasound system that bats use to hunt down their prey actually causes some moths to take natural evasive action, which is a little like us having a natural function that causes us to move out of the way of bullets without thinking about it. Clever. Moths themselves live mostly on the nectar from plants, which is sucked out using a straw like tongue. Moths play a vital role in the pollination of some plants, in particular those that bloom at night. These sometimes rely almost solely on moths to pollinate them.

So why the attraction to light? Well, rather disappointingly, nobody really knows. There are many theories about, but not a single one has been proved to any degree. The most prominent theory, the one that has gathered the most moss, is the celestial navigation idea. Basically what this means is that moths use a navigational technique that is reliant on the moon to keep them in a straight line. However, the moon is pretty dang far away, so when a closer light is introduced into their line of movement, they instantly head towards that. Think of it like this; if humans used a big magnet in outer space to navigate ourselves, and then all of a sudden there appeared a magnet much much closer to us, we would more than likely move towards that. So they aren’t dumb for flying into lights, they are just having teething issues in a system that is far beyond our knowledge.

The poor, poor moth. For years, it has been treated like the black sheep, the unemployed brother, the drug addled cousin. Shunned aside for its more glamorous brethren, it would  be forgiven for spending its nights plotting some sort of ghastly revenge against the butterfly, but it is too busy pollinating plants that only bloom at night and trying to evade being murdered. Such is the lot of the moth. So next time you find yourself disgruntled at the appearance of a moth in the room, before you squish it with a shoe you no longer wear take a moment to think. Every animal has its place in nature, and your disdain for the moth is completely unfounded and illogical. Learn to love the thing.