Let us be honest, not a lot of people appreciate having moths nearby. They congregate around lampposts and light bulbs and fly around your face and smash themselves on windshields. They settle on walls and ceilings, and some of them just drop dead to the floor where they are stepped on with a sickening crunch, and then attract masses of unwelcome ants afterwards if not swept away in time. A lush garden may have some of its plants in a sorry state the day after, having served as midnight snacks for the gluttonous young of some moth who has made the unfortunate decision to lay its eggs on the more treasured garden plants while people are deep in their slumber.
And it is this affinity for darkness that has made moths so little known. Compared to their generally more gaudy diurnal cousins, the butterflies, we have very little idea of what they actually do. We see them within the range of our man-made lights, mostly resting. Their other activities, apart from flying around, remains veiled in blackness.
Moths affect the pollination of a great number of plant species as much as butterflies do, and many of these plants will cease to exist once their pollinators vanish.
Indeed, it appears that there are plants whose existence is tightly woven to the presence of some moth species. In a celebrated discovery, Charles Darwin once predicted in 1862 that the pollinator of the Madagascan comet orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), the outrageous nectary of which could attain lengths of up to almost 17 inches, would be a moth whose proboscis matches the length of the orchid nectary. This prediction was widely ridiculed, for no one then had the capacity to even remotely imagine a moth with a feeding tube of such proportions.
In 1903, such a moth was discovered in Madagascar, aptly named Xanthopan morganii praedicta. By this time, Darwin had been dead for 21 years, but vindication is vindication.
Some adult moths, not just their larvae, feed on tropical fruits by means of their piercing mouthparts. When they occur near human habitation, they become agricultural pests. The fruit-piercing moths from the genus Eudocima from subfamily Calpinae are notable in this regard, but the larvae are particularly engaging creatures. Some species of Eudocima appear like dead leaves, complete with damaged edges.
Fly by night
When I go into the forest at night, moths are among the most ubiquitous of the forest denizens. While many are found flying about, there are those that are often found in a resting position among the surrounding vegetation. Moths of the genera Acropteris and Teldenia are good examples of these and are effortlessly detected due to their white or pale gray coloration, with muted markings.
Such moths are very easily photographed as they are not inclined to fly away at the slightest disturbance. One wonders though how these moths can afford to be bold enough to display such complacency despite being easily seen by potential predators.
Not all moths have a kinship for the night. Some go about their business during the day. Moths from the family Callidulidae are called “butterfly moths” because, apart from being diurnal, their wings fold together in the manner of butterflies’.
Metalmark moths (family Choreutidae) are also day-flyers, with very attractive metallic coloration on their wings; in this family, the ones from the genus Saptha truly live up to the name. In addition, there are members of the family Uraniidae that are also diurnal, with elongated tips on their wings which give them a more butterfly-like appearance.
Tiger and Lichen Moths from the family Erebidae are among the most diverse, with some species mimicking dead leaves; the largest species attain wingspans of up to 17 cm. Asota egens is a brightly colored member (subfamily Aganainae, or the Snouted Tiger Moths) whose larvae feed on Ficus benjamina, a popular street tree often used by the MMDA along EDSA.
Moths from the subfamily Arctiinae, known collectively as “Woolly Bears” due to their very hairy caterpillars, are among those I am most enamored by. These moths have striking coloration and pattern, although in some of its genera, the species involved are more subdued in appearance. The genus Cyana have red or orange coloration on their wings; C. libulae has a pair of large spots reminiscent of Spiderman’s, and another pair of funny-looking eyes atop a mustachioed mouth.
Better batting average
Owlet moths from the family Noctuidae moths are usually cryptically colored, but there are members that have attractive markings in bright colors. These moths are regular pollinators of nocturnally-scented flowers, which also makes them targets for insectivorous bats.
However, there are species in this family that have organs in their ears that are sensitive to bat echolocations, which causes them to fly erratically and thus more difficult for bats to catch. Ophthalmis lincea is an eye-catching moth with orange highlights on its predominantly blue-black wings.
Fast fliers: Odd marking
The Hawk, or Sphinx, Moths from the family Sphingidae are moderate to large in size, and instantly recognizable by their streamlined form which at times resemble jet planes, an adaptation for rapid flight.
The larvae of many of the species included here have startling eye spots and that make them look like snakes. Due to the large sizes of these larvae, considerable damage can be incurred to their host plants. The Death’s Head (Acherontia ssp.), made famous by the movie Silence of the Lambs, is in this family.
Agrius convolvuli also has a head-like figure on the thorax, but the pair of eye-like markings look more sinister, and the “head” more elongated, which fancifully resembles some imaginings of alien countenances seen in some movies.
More than a fleeting fancy
I suppose that no naturalist fails to develop even a tinge of appreciation for these mostly nocturnal creatures who share our world but seem to be somehow apart from it, at least from our vantage point. Their veiled lives verge on both human fascination and alienation, and yet it pays to know their acquaintance, if only for an opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of the most hidden aspects of the natural world.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s March 2019 issue.