FEBRUARY
2006

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

2-9-06

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

With MiniMoths, Out of Sight Is Not Always Out of Mind


Butterflies and moths belong to the insect order Lepidoptera. This order is a large one, with some 160,000 species that have been given a name. Nearly all of us recognize a butterfly when we see one. These brightly colored creatures with big wings are very visible as they flutter around summer flowers in search of sips of nectar.

So recognizable are butterflies that they show up frequently in art, poetry, photography and song. Many fashion items incorporate a butterfly design. From my observation, butterflies are also a popular choice for human tattoos.

If butterflies are the swans of the Lepidoptera, then surely the moths are the ugly ducklings. Moths aren't showy like butterflies. Most are dull-colored, cloaked as they are in their earth tones. They are night creatures and, in the dark of night colors, are of little value. The lack of bright coloration allows moths to go unnoticed during daylight when these insects are inactive and trying to hide from predators.

But when the sun goes down, the moths come out. Moths go about their mothly business under cover of darkness. In the words of Tennyson, "The filmy shapes that haunt the dusk." It is then that moths find mates, lay eggs on food plants and flutter away to new habitats. When the sun comes up, moths, like the evening dew, evaporate into obscurity.

While the social butterflies of the Lepidoptera grab the headlines, the moths are far more numerous. In Indiana, for instance, there are 149 species of butterflies and some 12,000 species of moths. People who are interested in moths generally separate them into two groups, big ones and little ones. Such a system might not be scientific, but it is descriptive.

The large moths include those known as the giant silkworm moths. These include some species with wingspans of more than 6 inches. Some of the largest insects known belong to this group, including an Attacus moth that has a wingspan of 10 inches. Polyphemus, cercropia, promethea and luna moths also belong to this group. Because of their size and prominence of eyespot markings, these moths create quite a stir when discovered.

Another group of large moths are known as hummingbird, sphinx or hawk moths. These moths are some of the fastest flying insects and are active at dusk, where they can be observed hovering about flowers. Another 6-inch wingspan moth is the royal walnut moth, which also has some unmothlike bright yellow spots and red veins on the front wings.

A few moths are day active. These moths include a hummingbird moth that mimics a bumble bee. Other moths mimic wasps. In general, day-flying moths are more brightly colored than most moths. Apparently, in the moth world, if you act like a butterfly, it is better to look like a butterfly. After all, colors have meaning in the daylight.

The majority of moths are dull-colored and small. Most of us encounter these minimoths, known as micro-Lepidoptera by scientists, as flicks in the beam of car headlights, blotches on car windshields or as they mill around porch lights.

We tend to not pay much attention to minimoth adults, but the same cannot always be said for their caterpillars. There are several species of small moths that are quite destructive in the caterpillar stage. The European corn borer and sugar cane borer are examples. Webworms are small moths as adults and eat the leaves of plants as caterpillars.

Some species of small moths are also pests associated with our homes. Caterpillars of the Indian meal moth and the Angoumois grain moth feed on grain. The caterpillars of what are called "clothes moths" consume natural fibers, such as wool and fur. Consequently, these caterpillars will eat holes in clothing and carpets. So, a small moth flitting about the room when the lights are switched on could mean caterpillars in the pantry or closet! Or not. After all, there are thousands of little brown moths in this world.

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox