Understanding moths and what they’re looking for

There’s no question, moths get a bad rap. Their upscale cousins, the butterflies hog all the publicity with vivid colors while most moth wings feature earth tones. Maybe this disparity is simply that you see butterflies during the day when we’re out and about. But come dusk and this whole world changes after moths emerge to flitter around seeking nectar sources until midmorning, when they return to the trees for a daytime rest.

When gardening to create habitat for these insects, it’s important to know the difference between a nectar source and a larval food plant. Adult moths seek out nectar bearing flowers to feed upon. When it’s time to reproduce, the female lays her eggs on larval food plants. These plants provide plenty of food to the hatchling larvae to feed on during this first phase of the lifecycle. Therefore, when you use larval food plants you must expect to find larvae diligently eating the foliage to tatters.

Years ago while filming my gardening TV show, I planted a shrub known commonly as “yesterday, today and tomorrow” (Brunfelsia magnifica). It was planted beneath the living room window so residents indoors could observe big hawk moths feeding at dusk and dawn. The next day I learned the entire family sat in that window all evening watching the huge dark moths hovering, then perch on the flowers to feed. This demonstrates how certain plants bear flowers that lure pollinators with a scent that mimics the pheromone of moth species.

Another amazing example of moths occurred this past year as the huge native yuccas flowered all over the California desert. Yuccas depend on a small white, inch-long moth for pollination. The female gathers the sticky pollen into a ball, inserts an egg or two, then stuffs it into the ovary of the flower. Pollinated flowers then produce very large seed pods which contain the larvae of those eggs. They are tiny, bright red caterpillars that eat their way out of the fruit at maturity, then drop to the earth where they pupate underground to emerge again the next spring.

Some plants are both larval food and nectar species. During the heat of summer, the angels trumpet daturas, aka Jimsonweed, bloom all over America. These toxic nightshades produce huge white trumpet shaped flowers up to a foot long, opening upward to the night sky. Huge moths can be seen resting fully satiated on the flowers before they return to protected daytime quarters. I grew a native datura in my garden from wild gathered seed and discovered that it’s also a food plant for hawk moth larvae. The huge larvae defoliated my datura in just two consecutive nights.

Amy Graham runs the moth program at Longue Vue garden in Louisiana. She shared a great way to help you and your kids better experience moths. “At night in summer, hang a white bed sheet in the yard. Go out at 2 or 3 in the morning and put a super bright light behind the cloth. It will draw moths to perch on the sheet. Here males will gather around females so you get a close view of their visual differences.” According to Amy, the males typically bear larger antennae.

So like the ugly duckling often overlooked, moths often take a back seat to the butterflies. As gardeners discover their amazing life cycle and roles as pollinators, planting a moth habitat not only benefits the environment, your garden after dark will never look the same.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com . Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.


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