When the shadow of night falls over rooftops, moths navigate through the dark, following the fragrance of night-blooming flowers. These little creatures, often overlooked by science, could very well be considered the underdogs of the pollinators.
Despite their ecological significance, moths have been relatively understudied compared to their more popular counterparts the bees. This knowledge gap is due to moths being nocturnal, making them less accessible for observation and study than diurnal insects.
“In many cases, moths are seen as a pest to humans. However, their roles in ecosystems are extensive and important. From providing crucial food sources to birds and bats, for example, but also, as we show in our research, their role in pollen transport for urban plant communities is far greater than previously thought”, says Emilie Ellis, a pollinator ecologist at the University of Sheffield, UK.
Her interest in moths sparked during a field trip to Romania a few years back, which included some nocturnal moth trapping. During that time, she first became aware of the insects’ diversity. “I wanted to gain further knowledge about nocturnal moths’ role in our ecosystems. This was when I realized the biases in the literature towards diurnal insects, especially bees. Consequently, I focused on including moths in all my research.”
Recently she and some fellow researchers have published a study in the journal Ecology Letters that sheds light on the significance of moths as pollinators. They collected bees and moths and analyzed the DNA of the pollen found on these insects, determining the plant species they had visited and potentially pollinated. The results revealed that moths carry more pollen than previously believed and account for a significant portion of pollinator visits, surpassing previous estimates.
Meet the Rosy Maple Moth, commonly observed near maple trees, as their caterpillars feed on their leaves.
“The sheer number of insect-plant interactions revealed when including moths was astounding. We hypothesized that moths would be a small addition to the bee pollen-transport networks; however, we showed that moths were not only accounting for up to a third of all interactions but also that were foraging on distinctly different plant communities compared to bees”, Ellies adds. “This research highlights the need to go further from ‘save the bees’ initiatives and also include habitats and resources from which moths will specifically benefit.
Scientists and environmentalists advocate for preserving and creating moth-friendly habitats, such as native wildflower meadows and diverse urban green spaces. By fostering environments that cater to the needs of moths, the nocturnal creatures can continue to contribute to the overall health of our ecosystems.