They are among the most diverse and successful creatures on the planet, with as many as 500,000 species sharing the earth. Their colors and patterns can be dazzling and bright, or so cryptic that they define camouflage-- few creatures blend into their environment better than they. Their shapes and sizes run the gamut from as small as a pinhead to as large as an adult’s hand.
And there will likely be many of them flying around your porch light tonight- if you left the light on.
They are moths, those night-flying cousins of butterflies that have never gotten the attention their bolder, day-flying relatives have received.
Until now. We are currently in the middle of National Moth Week-- yes, they get a full week! - and the Schuylkill Center will be celebrating them on Zoom as part of our Thursday Night Live series of presentations. Tune in this Thursday, July 23 at 7 p.m.; get the link by registering for the free evening program on our website, www.schuylkillcenter.org.
Our special guest is Roxborough’s own Kris Soffa, master naturalist and “moth-er.” Kris is a fixture in the community, living here for almost 40 years, serving on the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission, and being, as she told me, “a life-long trailblazer for environmental advocacy, wildlife, open space, and historic preservation." Kris has been hosting Moth Night since this national week started in 2012, participants gathering around a brightly lit white sheet that moths are attracted to. Since she can’t invite you to see them in person this year, we're gathering over Zoom instead.
How did she get interested in moths? “They called me Nature Girl when I was a kid,” she told me via email last week. “I was always interested in looking after nature and wildlife. I liked to make plaster casts of paw prints along riverbanks, collect minerals and shells and butterflies. But one day I was startled to find a perfect luna moth- and my 5th-grade world exploded. The Little Golden Book of Moths & Butterflies taught me this gorgeous creature lived for only a few days, had no mouthparts, and flew only at night while I was sleeping. It was ghostly, mysterious, elusive, and I was hooked.
They are also huge, among the biggest moths. “Yes, they are one of the best-loved and easiest recognized moths, sparking the imagination of poets, artists, and writers for centuries, even being ascribed with ethereal and metaphysical qualities.” The female gives off a scent that, says Kris, can be detected from seven miles away by a male - which is blessed with very sensitive antennae.
But other moths are cool too. “I also really like the underwing moths,” she continued, named for the bright hidden colors they suddenly flash when they reveal their underwings (you’ll see pictures Thursday evening). “They grunt and chirp and their warning coloration strategy helps them to avoid being eaten by bats, birds, even small mammals. They come to a variety of light and sugar bait lures, so I’ve had them show up at Moth Nights, which I can’t wait to do again. And their names are hilarious and creative like the dejected underwing, not to mention the precious, serene, darling, inconsolable, and tearful underwings.” The inconsolable underwing? THAT I’d like to see.
“Certain hawk moths,” she continues, “can fly at 30 miles per hour, some can hover like a hummingbird, and some can hear the echolocation signal of bats trying to overtake them in flight - and take evasive actions just like Kamikaze pilots. A Madagascar moth has a fourteen-inch-long curling tongue which it uses to feed as well as pollinate an orchid which has a fourteen-inch-long nectar tube… so they are symbiotic since the plant needs the insect and vice versa.”
Why do these seemingly unassuming creatures matter? “Moths are part of our complex ecosystem, and how well they are doing gives us an early warning system for our own eco-health, like canaries in the coal mine. Our impact on the ecosystem as humans has created a loss of habitat, and pesticides have further damaged the delicate balance. Moths are beautiful and amazing and once people become interested in them or any aspect of the natural world, they start making changes and finding ways to preserve and protect it.”
You’ll learn some way to protect moth diversity, but one, as you might guess, is to “remember to use no pesticides. Stewardship of moths, butterflies, bees, and all our pollinator species enhances the entire wildlife food chain. Poison the bugs,” she exhorts, “and everything above them on the food chain suffers. Want to see more birds? Plant host plants for moth and butterfly caterpillars and nectar source plants for the adults.”
Long active in open space preservation and other environmental causes, Kris is currently engaged in promoting healthier land management with Toxic Free Philly, a group she founded, and which introduced legislation to City Council when the pandemic locked things down. She looks forward to renewing this effort soon.
But for now, join us on Thursday evening to let Kris introduce you to these extraordinary creatures, sharing examples of them while answering all your questions. You’ll never see moths the same.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at email@example.com.