You know about moths, right? They destroy wool sweaters, lay eggs in the Raisin Bran, and strip bare our shade trees.
What's not to hate?
Turns out, there's a little to hate and lots to love. Most moths are good guys, serving as important pollinators in the field and garden; protein-rich food for bats, birds, frogs and predatory insects, like praying mantises; and, because of their sensitivity, indicators of environmental change.
In case you were wondering, moths can be every bit as beautiful as their publicity-hogging cousins, the butterflies. "They're not just LBTs," says Elena Tartaglia, an expert on hawk moths, using the acronym for "little brown things," which is what most folks picture when you say the word moth.
Prepare to rethink this mostly nocturnal member of the order Lepidoptera, which also includes day-flying butterflies. Moths, which are millions of years older than butterflies, outnumber them ten to one, and, though many moths are indeed brown, many others are lime green, bright yellow, pink, or orange, with symmetrical spots and spectacular patterns that rival any butterfly.
"When you think big, bright colors, you think tiger swallowtail butterflies, but there are absolutely beautiful moths. Unfortunately, people see them and think they must be some invasive exotic creature that isn't from around here," says Karen Verderame, insect specialist/educator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
That said, thousands of people, in every state in the U.S. and 43 countries, recently devoted an entire week to celebrate and increase awareness of the little-known, misunderstood, and maligned moth.
The last full week of July was the third National Moth Week. "Moth-ers," as fans are called, gathered in open space, set up bright lights to attract moths, then took photos of them to send to organizations like Project Noah (www.projectnoah.org), which documents and identifies citizen-scientists' wildlife sightings.
Liti Haramaty, Moth Week cofounder, says the idea grew out of informal moth nights hosted by the Friends of the East Brunswick (N.J.) Environmental Commission in 2005. Soon 50 to 60 people were showing up.
"It was amazing how many people came out at night to a park to see what's flying," says Haramaty, a researcher at Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.
This year, Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope hosted "Moth Mania" on what was - beg pardon - a very dark and stormy night. Heavy rain fell for most of the evening, not good if you were hoping to see some moth action.
But the downpour eased up, and the 175-watt mercury vapor black light installed in a pavilion by the meadow attracted hundreds of flies and moths to an old bed sheet hung in front of it. Tartaglia, who drew 150 moth-ers earlier in the week at the Meadowlands in North Jersey, says the bright light makes the nocturnal moths think it's daytime. They rest on the sheet, allowing observers to get up close, pick them up, or take pictures.
"If we're lucky, a bat will come by and take one off the sheet. It does happen. It's exciting," says Tartaglia, assistant biology professor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J.
No bats, but moth-ers were treated to a painted lichen moth that resembled a red firefly, a datana moth with soft brown stripes, clouds of mothlike caddisflies, and the night's prize, a large imperial moth that elicited oohs and ahhs.
Among those paying close attention was Richard Smith, a 10th-generation farmer in Buckingham Township, whose obsession continuum started with birds and progressed to butterflies, dragonflies, and now moths.
"The challenge is to find the ID," explains Smith, who has named more than 100 of the 2,500 moth photographs in his scrapbook.
Audrey Frankowski, who directs musicals at South Hunterdon Regional High School in Lambertville, was an eager observer, too. "I have incredible moths in my house," she says, citing a bright green one, most likely a luna moth, that "hung out on my windowsill."
But oh, the work to be done with the non-moth-ers out there.
Fox News' Greta Van Susteren did not help matters when she blogged recently: "Do we really need this? a National Moth Week? I am in favor of science and learning - but a National Moth Week?"
"As if I'm sucking in federal funds," Tartaglia huffs.
Adding to the bad rep is Mothra, the giant moth-monster who battles Godzilla in the movies, and The Silence of the Lambs, which cast the death's-head hawk moth in a disquieting role. (What isn't disquieting in that film?)
It cannot be disputed; some moths are destructive in the kitchen, closet, garden, and farm field. The tomato hornworm, which can defoliate tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants, is actually the caterpillar of a hawk moth.
"Moths have gotten an unsavory reputation," Tartaglia says sadly.
Consider: While there is no official term for fear of butterflies, moth-phobic people can claim mottephobia.
"Moths definitely need better PR," Tartaglia says.
Moths and butterflies have declined globally by an average 35 percent over the last 40 years, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Bob Adams, director of stewardship for the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, blames their loss and that of many other insects on several factors: "Insects, generally, have just been hit so hard by the last 100 years of growth in this country. So much land has been developed, they're losing habitat and being attacked by various chemicals.
"Sooner or later," Adams says, "that will have an impact on pollination, food sources for other animals, and for us."
Home gardeners can help by landscaping with a variety of native host plants to provide shelter for moths to lay eggs and leaves for developing caterpillars to eat and nectar plants to nourish the adults.
Adult moths may get nectar from many types of flowers, but native plant species may also offer food for caterpillars, which generally are more limited in the types of leaves they can eat.
Good host plants include flame azalea, butterfly weed, cohosh, dogwood, ironweed, milkweed, and sassafras.
Good nectar plants include aster, butterfly weed, coneflower, cosmos, petunia, snapdragon, spider flower, sunflower, and zinnia.
Since most moths are nocturnal, Adams and other experts suggest nectar plants with easily seen white flowers, such as phlox, oakleaf hydrangea, goatsbeard and viburnum.
"Anything white and open at night will be visited by moths," says Elena Tartaglia, a hawkmoth researcher and one of the organizers of National Moth Week.
Others suggest that pale pink or yellow flowers also are attractive to nectar-seeking moths.
For more information, go to bhwp.org (Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve), gardenswithwings.com (Gardens With Wings), or butterfliesandmoths.org (Butterflies and Moths of North America.)
- Virginia A. Smith