Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Some Moths Just Mill Around

Some people refer to night-flying Lepidoptera, known as moths, as millers. Calling those insects millers, or miller moths, as was sometimes the case, was common in the area where I grew up. We didn't call just any moth a miller. The term seemed to be reserved for those little cream-colored moths that showed up in droves around our porch lights at night.

I have never been sure whether folks with the surname of Miller should be proud of the fact that they have a group of moths named after them or not. Actually, the moths are not named after the people, nor for that matter are the people named after the moths. Both groups, though, surely share a common heritage in their names.

The term miller is based on the ancient occupation of mill operator. The most common mill in those bygone days was used to process grain into flour. Mill operators became known as millers and, because of the nature of their occupation, frequently were covered by dust from the grain milling. It is the dust covering of the miller that probably suggested the use of the name for some moths. Many small light-colored moths have wings that appear to be covered by dust, just as is the human millers' clothing.

There may be other reasons that the name miller is appropriate for these moths. Two very common moths that surely would be called millers by most people are frequently found in grain mills. These insects, the Indian meal moth and the angoumois grain moth, feed as immatures in grain and grain products. The moths are common in grain milling facilities, where sometimes a cloud of insects might take flight when disturbed from their daytime resting place.

The behavior of many moths around lights also suggests that miller might be an appropriate name for these insects. Moths that are attracted to lights seem to fly in endless circles around the light source. That behavior, at least on the part of people, is known as milling around. The saying is based on the rotation of the mill stone, turned endless times as the grain was ground. Humans or animals powering the stone would have to walk around and around and, in the process, go nowhere. A moth circling a light would appear to be milling around just as did a miller when grinding grain with a mill stone.

Millers of both the human and insect variety are common creatures and certainly trace their names to the dusty old grain miller whose occupation required milling around from time to time.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann