What Are Moths Good For?
When most people think of moths they conjure up images of greyish-brown creatures fluttering around the porch lights. Moths also show up as unwanted pests in the flour and destructive vermin munching on cashmere sweaters. But there are around 200,000 species of moth and a great majority of them are beneficial to the environment.
Moths outnumber butterflies by more than 10 to 1. There’s about 11,000 species in the United States alone, more than all the bird and mammal species combined. Moths can be incredibly tiny—the size of a pencil tip. They can also be huge! The Atlas moth of Southeast Asia is as big as a bird with a wingspan of nearly 12 inches. The biggest moth found in North America is the 4.5 inch Royal Walnut moth.
There are definitely bad actors in the moth pantheon. The corn earworm, in its caterpillar stage, wreaks havoc in cornfields. But most moths are nectar suckers who pollinate a wide variety of plants. The hummingbird moth hovers in front of flowers and uses its long tongue to drink the nectar of honeysuckle and verbena.
When not eating dinner, moths are dinner. They appear in large numbers and are an important source of food for bats. In caterpillar form, moths provide food for nesting birds which feed the fuzzy little bugs to their young. Caterpillars are also eaten by frogs, spiders, lizards, mice, and many other forest creatures.
Humans are also reliant on moth protein in some parts of the world. Caterpillars are packed with nutrition and healthy fats. A single large caterpillar can provide 100 percent of the daily requirements for zinc, calcium, iron, and potassium. That’s why caterpillars are eaten by 90 percent of the population in some African countries.
While dining on caterpillars might not appeal to some, the creatures play a vital role in telling us about our environment. Because moths are so widespread, found in so many different ecosystems, and so sensitive to change, scientists consider the insects to be an indicator species. By monitoring moth numbers and range, researchers can determine the effects of pesticides, air pollution, climate change, and new farming practices. So next time you see a beautiful, colorful winged insect flutter by, consider that is probably isn’t a butterfly. Ten to one, it’s a moth and it is most likely performing a beneficial service and keeping the ecosystem healthy.