Moths - The Unseen Nocturnal Pollinator

Moths - The Unseen Nocturnal Pollinator

I thought we'd do one last 'Friday Facts' on unsung pollinator heroes before moving on to another subject next week. Today I am taking a quick look at moths as they can be overlooked in favour of the more glamourous butterfly yet have recently been shown to be much more important pollinators than previously thought.

Burnet moth emerging from crysalis

Apart from one of them eating holes in your favourite sweater there are a number of key differences between moths and butterflies which might be interesting to look at. The differences below are not exclusive to either moth or butterfly they are the general rule.

While moths are not always nocturnal they do tend to be evening or night fliers; this has a bearing on their colour as there is not much point in being brightly coloured if it's too dark to be seen. Butterflies use their bright colours as a means of identification while moths locate each other using weaving flight patters, sound or smell. Nocturnal moths tend to have more drab colour schemes designed to blend with their habitat when they are resting during the day.

Butterfly wing scales close up

The patterns on both butterfly and moth wings are made up of tiny scales made from modified hairs on the surface of their wings. The scales are pigmented to display colour but also effect pattern by diffracting light through a microscopic structure of ribs and holes. It is the scales that rub off on your hand when you handle a moth or butterfly and why you should handle them with care (even if they have eaten your socks).

Butterflies and moths also hold their wings differently. Butterflies tend to hold their wings upright unless they are deliberately showing off or warming themselves in the sun. Moths, on the other hand, hold their wings flat along their backs.

Moth male and female antenna

A butterfly antenna usually has a little bulb on the end while a moth's antenna tapers to a point. Moth's antennae can be a single filament or feathery in appearance, this is often dependent on the sex of the moth. Male moths are more likely to have feathered antennae as they detect females by smell so need a wider surface area for their scent receptors.

Moths as pollinators It had now been shown that moths play a much broader role than previously suspected. Studies by the universitioes of York, Newcastle and Hull have shown the moths ability to disperse pollen over large distances. Bees are excellent pollinators but will only service a territory within the environs of the nest while moths don't have ties to a particular area. This is important from a biodiversity point of view as pollen is spread and flowers fertilized from a wider gene pool.

Verbena pollinator flower planting scheme

To attract and support moths in your garden plant flowers that release their scent in the evening. Top garden plants for moths include:

  • Argentinian Vervain - Verbena bonariensis
  • Buddleia - Buddleja davidii
  • Common Jasmine - Jasminum officinale
  • Evening Primrose - Oenothera biennis
  • Globe Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus
  • Hebe spp.
  • Honeysuckle - Lonicera periclymenum
  • Miss Willmott's Ghost - Eryngium giganteum
  • Sweet Rocket - Hesperis matronalis
  • Tobacco Plant - Nicotiana alata

Moths food source owls

Moths and the food chain Moths are also an important food source for nocturnal wildlife including spiders, bats, owls and small mammals. Birds like blue tits, great tits and robins also feed on moth caterpillars.

Pollinator friendly plant packs We are now expanding our range of ready to plant seedling packs to include more wildlife friendly annual and perennial plants. If you would like to view our expanding wildlife planting planting pack please click the blue button below.

That's it for now, I'll see you next week!