Wildlife

10 things you didn’t know about moths

An insect of many talents, here’s why moths are one of the world’s most underrated animals

  • Jul 26, 2022
  • 1,035 words
  • 5 minutes
Cecropia moths. (Photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada)
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Diverse in colour, shape and size, moths are incredibly misunderstood insects that often get a bad rap. Unlike the much-loved butterfly — fellow members of Lepidoptera, an order of insects including moths and butterflies — who drift from flower to flower during the day, moths are nocturnal and spend most of their time being active at night. But did you know that, like the butterfly, moths also occupy their time by visiting flowers? As one of Canada’s most important insects, moths play a big role in the country’s biodiversity and are key indicators of a healthy environment. Not only are moths important sources of food for many bats, mammals and bird species, they are also key pollinators that help contribute to the prosperity of plants and flowers within our ecosystems. Needless to say, we need moths. Read on to explore why these misjudged insects need our attention and learn some cool facts you may not have known about these nighttime dwellers.

Some moths don’t eat

In their adult state, there are some species of moths that don’t eat. In fact, some moths, like the luna moth (Actias luna), don’t even have a mouth! Also known as “giant silkworm moths,” the sole purpose of the luna moth is to mate. They don’t have a digestive tract and only live for about a week. Moths that do eat will get most of their nutrients through the nectar of flowers, juices from fruit or sap from trees.

Moths are great impressionists

Many species of moths have evolved to mimic and imitate the appearance of other animals to deter predators. One of the most popular examples of this is the owl moth (Brahmaea wallichii) which has stunning wings that impersonate the face of an owl. With two “eyes” on either wing, the owl moth scares off predators by using its appearance to mimic that of a great horned owl. Other examples include the hornet moth (Sesia apiformis), which looks like a hornet and the wood nymph (Eudryas grata), which has evolved to look like bird faeces.

Hummingbird clearwing moth. (Photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada)
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They love a good beer

Light isn’t the only thing that moths are attracted to. Scientists who, for whatever reason, want to lure moths to a certain location have found a boozy solution: mixing a paste of beer, brown sugar and banana. This concoction is then painted onto trees, causing moths to flock to the location for a taste of this delightful treat.

Some moths migrate

Much like the monarch butterfly migration, some species of moth will migrate for a better food supply or move to regions with warmer weather. For example, the dark sword-grass moth (Agrotis ipsilon) will migrate north in the spring and south in the winter. This species of moth can be found across the globe from Canada to Asia and even in New Zealand.

Primrose moth. (Photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada)
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There are more moths than butterflies

We’ve all seen a moth or two dancing around a light or window frame at night. But have you ever noticed how many moths you see compared to butterflies during the day? According to the Smithsonian Institution, there are approximately 160,000 species of moths in the world compared to 17,500 species of butterflies. In Canada, there are about 5,000 species of moths including the primrose moth (Schinia florida), the white-fringed emerald moth (Nemoria mimosaria) and the cecropia moth (Hylaophora cecropia). The Lepidopterists’ Society states that for every butterfly, there are about eight moths.

Some moths are invasive species

Native to Europe, the spongy moth (Lymantria dispar) was first detected in Ontario in 1969. The larvae (caterpillar) feed on new foliage off of trees like oak, birch and aspen. You might have noticed these fuzzy, grey caterpillars collecting on the trunks of trees in your backyard or feeding off of the leaves of your favourite tree. Once the caterpillar has undergone a metamorphosis, the moth becomes brown and white in colour and grows a thin antenna. According to the Government of Canada, during the larval stage, a single spongy moth caterpillar can eat an average of one square metre of leaves.

They aren’t always little

Some moths can be as large as a human hand! Saturniidae, commonly known as saturniids, is a family of moths and butterflies that contains some of the largest species of moths in the world. Some distinguished members include the royal moth, the giant silk moth and the emperor moth. Most of these incredible moths have a wingspan of up to 15 centimetres but others, such as the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) can have a wingspan of up to 30 centimetres.

 

Leconte's hapola moth. (Photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada)
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Moths don’t have noses

They may not have a nose but they sure do have a strong sense of smell. All over the body of a moth are thousands of finely tuned smell and taste receptors. These come in the form of scales, bristles and pits found on moths’ feet, mouthparts and antennae. These receptors help moths find food, detect fungal diseases and parasites and find mates. A male moth can even smell a female more than seven miles away!

Some moths can survive underwater

Across the world, there are about 120,000 described species of aquatic moths, 11,000 of which can be found in North America. Aquatic moth larvae can be found in slow, still or rapidly flowing water bodies and tend to live amongst rocks or vegetation around riverbeds. Fancy-cased caterpillars, which are found in Hawaii, build houses for themselves in the shape of a burrito and can live underwater for weeks without coming up for air. As adults, these moths have a colourful, decorative fringe and can come in a variety of colours.

They can be faster than birds

With a need for speed, the hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) is a fascinating species of moth that can fly up to 19 kilometres per hour. The hawk moth’s wingspan is approximately 12 cm in length and has a tongue that can be up to 30 cm long. This moth feeds very often which is needed to fly at such high speeds. Hawk moths are also agile flyers and can move quickly when confronted by an obstacle when moving from flower to flower.

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