Beyond Your Backyard: The Marvelous Moth

I attended a talk at the Pollinator Summit last year where one of the speakers said something that really stuck in my head as a high drama moment: “It makes no sense. We rake up all of our leaves, bag them up, put them on the sidewalk, or throw them away, and then spend hundreds of dollars on mulch come spring when we just threw away FREE mulch!” There isn’t anything I like better than FREE. Free library books, I’m there. Free table of stuff at Menard’s, sign me up, I’m sure I can use these light bulbs somewhere (stocking stuffer anyone?). Free cat? Sure, it’s snuggle season soon. It struck me how much wisdom there is in taking a moment to think about what we’re doing—especially when we might be buying something that nature is giving to us for free. Turns out, not only are we throwing away free mulch, but we’re also tossing out carefully camouflaged moth eggs, larvae, cocoons, and even disrupting some adults overwintering in and under our leaves.

Now don’t panic, not all moths put holes in your favorite sweater (in fact, according to the Xerces Society, less than 1% of our moths eat fabric). And it’s no wonder, with 11,000 different kinds of moths in North America—they don’t have time to eat sweaters, because they’re busy being unique and interesting!

So, what are all these moths doing hiding in our leaves? Why waiting to emerge and become a beautiful– er uh moth of course!

Some moth morsels to help you as you explain to others how marvelous they are:

  • Some moths have large and broad feathered antennae. These are super neat to see, check out some magical moth pics at this photo gallery.
  • Moths are typically nocturnal or crepuscular (not only is this a super fun word to say, but it also means active at dawn or dusk, see if you can use it in a sentence this week—your friends will definitely be impressed), but some species are out during the day.
  • Moths go through metamorphosis just like butterflies, but instead of a chrysalis, which is the hardened skin of the caterpillar, they encase themselves in a cocoon, which is made from plants or their own body hair (rad). Check out this video of a moth changing in Africa. If you want to see how this is different than butterfly metamorphosis, well there’s a video for that too!
  • Moth larvae rely on host plants. Some need specific species and others are generalists and most any plant or groups of plants will work.
  • Some male moths can detect a female up to 7 miles away and they aren’t even using noses to do it, they’re using their antennae equipped with scent receptors. That au de moth musk is strong!
  • Most adult moths nectar on a diversity of blooming flowers for food. But some don’t even have mouth parts or digestive tracts, their sole job is to find a date, mate, and move on to the great moth beyond.
  • Moths play a critical role in the ecosystem as pollinators, food for birds, bats and other wildlife, and even as food for people in some countries.

So while you’re out raking, take a peek under those leaves, and see what moth mysteries you can uncover. The more native plants species you have at home, the more different kinds of moths you’ll be able to find! Don’t let what you have now limit your future mystery moments, there’s no better time than right now to plan what you’re going to plant come spring!

All moth photos by Kyle Johnson, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources.

To learn more about moths visit: Moths are cool too! By the Xerces Society. #marvelousmoths #grownative