Happy National Moth Week!

by AMNH on

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It’s National Moth Week, an ideal time to observe and celebrate these remarkable, mainly nocturnal, butterfly cousins. Before you head outdoors, here are some things to know about moths.

Primitive moths appeared 195 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. Since then, more than 150,000 known species of moths have evolved in diverse colors, shapes, and sizes ranging from the European pygmy sorrel moth, with a wingspan of just 0.1 inch (3 millimeters), to the Atlas moth of Southeast Asia, whose wingspan can reach up to 12 inches (30 centimeters).

Atlas Moth
Atlas Moth 
Nevit Dilmen, 2008 

These versatile insects have developed a number of ways to communicate and protect themselves against the predators of the night. For example, the great tiger moth, which is featured in the Museum’s large-format photo exhibit Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large, produces ultrasonic clicks with its body to confuse bats by jamming their sonar. 

Great Tiger Moth
©  Jim des Rivières

The majority of moths use olfaction to find food and to attract mates in the dark but some, like the elephant hawk moth below, also use night-color vision to search out tasty flowers. 

Elephant Hawk Moth
Elephant hawkmoths are found in the United Kingdom and across Europe. 
Jean Pierre Hamon 

Moths have two pairs of eyes—one that distinguishes between light and dark and another to decipher color, shape, and movement.

Moths use their vision to orient themselves to natural sources of light. Artificial lights—including porch lights—disorient them, causing them to fly around in circles. 

Banded tussock Moth
Banded tussock moths are native to all of the eastern United States and Canada. 
© Jim des Rivières 

And don’t worry: attracting moths to your yard won’t compromise your garden. Moths are actually excellent pollinators, picking up pollen with their legs and wings and depositing it on flowers they visit. Two species of yucca moths, found in the southwestern United States, pollinate in the course of reproducing. The female gathers pollen from the yucca flower and, using specially adapted mouthparts, forms a sticky pollen ball, which she drops into the flowers of other yucca plants, allowing it to develop into fruit. Then she lays her eggs in the flower. By the time the eggs hatch, the plant will have developed a pod with seeds for the microscopic caterpillars to feast on. 

three yucca moths on a yucca flower
Yucca moths on a yucca flower.  
Alan Cressler

While yucca moths have specific mouthparts for pollination, some moths do not have mouthparts at all by the final stage of their metamorphosis. Giant hawk moths, found in Madagascar, may win the prize for the most unique mouthparts: the longest tongues of any other moth or butterfly, reaching up to 14 inches (35.65 centimeters) in length.

Giant Hawk
A giant hawk moth adult with its tongue extended 
Alfred University artist Joseph Scheer 

With over 11,000 species currently recognized in North America alone, there is no shortage of moth diversity and beauty. To see more than 30 large-scale photographs of North American moths by photographer Jim des Rivières—as well as specimens of the same species from the Museum’s collection—visit Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large.

Cecropia moth
Cecropia moth
© Jim des Rivières

Learn more about National Moth Week events at the National Moth Week website.