Butterflies are beautiful. Butterflies pollinate flowers. Butterflies deserve our love. Consequently, Butterfly gardening keeps gaining popularity. All this is fine, but, what about moths? Most people think that moths are drab and plain and that they only fly at night. The attitude toward moths ranges from indifference to dislike. Aversion to moths can reach the point of irrationality; some see them as death messengers. Moths deserve better than that.
Fortunately, the number of moth lovers keeps growing, with groups devoted to observing, collecting and studying their endless variety. If you have night-blooming plants, you may be in for a treat. Just welcome these visitors, watch them, and learn about them as a part of nature.
You may be interested to know that some moths, quite a few of them, fly during the day. Some are colorful and no less beautiful than butterflies. Others may not be so striking but they wear patterns of sober elegance. They contribute to pollination more than butterflies do. In fact, some plants rely entirely on moths for this function. Finally, moth caterpillars are great food for baby birds, rich in proteins and available at the right time, when birds are raising their broods. On the dark side, some caterpillars, especially those introduced from other continents, can devastate crops and ornamentals.
Moths are important components of ecosystems, altogether more abundant and diverse than butterflies. For each species of butterfly there are at least ten of moths. We should be just as eager to garden for moths as we are for butterflies, or even more so. Luckily, the native plant gardener is often doing exactly that without even trying. Moths are grateful for the native plants that sustain their caterpillars, as they have little or no use for introduced plants. If you are curious about what plant nourishes what moth the HOSTS website brims with information of this nature.
Let me talk about just one role of moths in the garden: that of pollinators. Just as butterflies, moths possess tubular tongues for sucking nectar. These drinking straws can be longer than their entire bodies and allow them to feed from long throated flowers. They carry these remarkable organs rolled up and tucked under their chins when in flight. Some need to land on the flower when nectaring; others simply hover in front of it just like hummingbirds. In fact some daylight-flying hawkmoths are called hummingbird moths.
You may have seen a small copy of a hummingbird fleeting from blossom to blossom. Or you may have heard its buzz, also similar to that of this bird. If you haven’t seen a hummingbird moth yet, look for them on some of their favorite flowers, such as beebalm or milkweed. They are also attracted to butterfly bush but don’t let this fool you into thinking that this introduced plant is good for your garden. Please read “Butterfly Bush is Invasive. Do NOT Plant.” The article includes a list of better plant choices for butterflies and moths.
A relative of the hummingbird moth, known as hummingbird hawkmoth, lives in Europe, Asia and Africa. It is similar in looks and habits. The most extraordinary thing about this moth is that its migration dwarfs that of our monarch butterfly. Every year, it flies from northern Africa and southern Asia to almost all of Europe and a large part of Asia.
Every year, my niece in Stuttgart waits anxiously for the arrival of this globetrotter. It usually shows up in June and enjoys the valerian flowers in her garden. It was thanks to her questions that I found out about this migratory moth. Otherwise, I would remain as unaware as most of you about this marvel.
If you have morning glory, Datura, Nicotiana, or four-o’clock plants in your garden, be prepared for a treat. The Carolina sphinx visits these flowers in a regular basis after the sun sets. You can’t miss this large moth when it does its rounds; so pull up a chair, bring a cool drink and wait for its arrival. This moth has a different side I would be remiss not to mention.
Its caterpillar and that of a close relative go by the names of tobacco and tomato hornworms. Bright green, fat and with a pointy “horn” at the rear end, they can grow almost as large as your pinky. If you haven’t guessed yet, they are the caterpillars that periodically ravage your tomato plants. Fortunately, if you maintain a healthy garden, the natural pest controls are in place, capable of preventing these caterpillars from doing too much damage. A parasitic wasp lays its eggs in them and kills them rather horribly. You can read the whole sinister story in “Bugs in the Garden. Hornworm: Friend or Foe? Friend and Foe.”
I will leave the stories of moths that pollinate cactus and yucca flowers for other time. For now, I hope you have developed a new curiosity for moths that may lead to love and the desire to make your garden moth friendly.
A few more moths:
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