All the Yarn She Spun

All the yarn she spun on Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus



Moths have a bad reputation.  They are like the homely sister constantly compared to her beautiful counterpart.  Thought to be a harbinger of war, pestilence, death, and even a symbol of insanity (think “The Silence of the Lambs), moths are possibly one of the most maligned creatures on earth.  “Moth-eaten” means drab, worn and useless.  Why should the moth have a reputation for eating our clothing and carpets, and infesting our breakfast cereals, while the butterfly is a cultural icon for loveliness and warm, care-free days?  Moth status is proof that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  People just don’t know enough about them.

moth arrayIf there was ever a group that needed a good lobbyist, it’s moths.  Along with bees, which (except honey bees) are also much-maligned, the moth does a lot of good.  Moths and bees are responsible for a substantial amount of plant pollination.  Because moths work under cover of night, they’ve acquired a shady imprimatur.  Yet we’d never get our “five a day” servings of fruit and vegetables without them.  And there’s nothing sinister about that!  

Closely related members of the lepidoptera family, butterfies are day-fliers and moths fly at night.  Or so it is widely thought.  In reality, there are a good number of day-flying moths.  They are frequently mistaken for butterflies, or even for other insects.  But almost no one pegs them for moths.  Most are just too beautiful for that, and we all “know” that moths are just plain-jane pests.  Conversely, there are quite a few drab butterflies out there, but they are probably confused for moths!

The day-flying grapevine epimenis moth

The day-flying grapevine epimenis moth

moth antennae

moth antennae

Moth versus butterfly identification is fairly simple.  The butterfly has  clubbed antennae with knobby ends.  The moth antennae are feathery, the better to recieve pheromones, those scent-filled billet-doux of the insect world.  The female sends out her perfumed message and the male receives it with those frondy antennae at distances of up to 8 kilometers away.  If people were so equipped, Marconi would have been a taxi driver!  And forget Facebook.

Many moths  look like body-builders.  Big and beefy, they seem to be covered with hair.  It’s just an illusion.  Those “hairs” are scales just like those found on the wings of both butterflies and moths.  The notion that a butterfly or moth is disabled from flying by the loss of scales is a fallacy.  They lose scales all the time in their every day life,and keep on going until they wear out or something eats them.  Lepidoptera lifespan is about two weeks, so if they loose a few scales brushing up against a twig or in a predator’s attempt on their life, no matter.  As adults the main job is to reproduce then make room for the next generation by expiring. 

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

There are moths who disguise themselves as bird droppings, moths who hover at flowers, moths who pitch a tent for their young, moths who make sound, moths whose caterpillar can shoot a spray of burning acid, moths who look like a twig, underwater moths, and moths who live at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal.  Moths come in every color of the rainbow.   The diversity, remarkable life cycle and adaptations of moths makes a darn good yarn.     

And the moths that  eat fabric?  They can digest keratin, making fur and other animal products fair game for them.  All told, the moth has it figured out from every angle.  

This weekend (July 25), we’ll be taking a close-up look at moths and their nighttime insect friends.  I’ve cooked up a slurry of irresitible (to moths) glop that I’ll paint on trees to attract the bugs.  I have special lights to bring them out, too.  We’ll see fireflies, beetles and all manner of infrequently enjoyed night creatures.  Join us!  Bring your bug spray and your curiosity, but no flashlight.  The fun starts at 8:45 PM.   We hope you can make it!

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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6 Responses to “All the Yarn She Spun”

  1. Ratty Says:

    I love this look at moths! I also like that you show the difference between moths and butterflies. That one is important. I’ve been wanting to write a post that shows the differences, but I haven’t gotten any moth pictures yet. I only get butterflies so far. When I do finally get all the pieces for my post I will add a link in there to this one so everyone over my way can have a chance to read this too.

  2. Bridget Says:

    Nice change of perspective; thanks for the insight.

  3. haplesshousewife Says:

    You make a splendid advocat for the much maligned branch of the Lepidopteran world. Thank you. That grossly unfair reputation for devouring textiles is such a source of frustration : of Britain’s many, many moth species (around 2,500) only a single digit handful actually will pose this particular problem.

  4. Marcie Says:

    Hi! I happen to be out in the Hill-Stead’s Sunken Garden around 1:00 pm today when I come across one of the museum’s many moth friends – a hummingbird moth. At first I thought it was actually a hummingbird until I leaned in closer and took a good look at it. The fact that it did not immediately zoom off was my first clue it was not a feathered creature. The antennae were the next clue. Of course, I was caught without my camera, but I did have my cell phone and was able to capture a few fairly good photos. I was very excited to see the hinningbird moth today and I look forward to exploring more of the Hill-Stead flora and fauna in the future.

  5. hillsteadnatureblog Says:

    Hi Marcie! It’s wonderful to see those hummingbird moths, technically a clearwing moth. I will look for you at Hill-Stead! Dinae

  6. The Moth and Me #6 « the Marvelous in nature Says:

    […] that moths have received some bad press over the last several centuries, and makes an effort to correct the misconceptions. Speaking of misconceptions, she also points out that the Wooly Bear caterpillar doesn’t […]

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