Why should we care about moths?

Jersey tiger moth credit Vaughn Matthews

For National Moth Week, Keeping it Wild Trainee Ishmael talks about their importance as some of the most diverse and successful organisms on earth.

Constantly vilified by the media, most people think of moths simply as household pests: Living only with the intention of destroying our best woollens and deserving of a dousing in a deadly spray. However, since only two out of the 2,500 plus species of moth in the UK lay their eggs in clothes, this is only a small side of the story. Not only are moths far more physically diverse than many think (a privet hawk moth can have a 12cm wingspan), but their impact on the world is diverse, ranging from their ecological services to their contribution to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Far from being invasive, the cinnabar moth (pictured below), known for its striking black and red wings and equally striking black and yellow caterpillar, has had a hugely positive impact on UK agriculture. The caterpillars eat ragwort, a wildflower potentially deadly if ingested by horses and cattle. This moth has so much value for the farming industry that it has been intentionally introduced into North America and Australia to help control the weed.

Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)

Cinnabar moth credit Vaughn Matthews

Moths also play a hugely important part in many ecosystems. Even some of the smallest bats in the UK, like the common pipistrelle, need to eat up to 3,000 moths in one night. The loss of natural habitats for vole and other small mammal populations in London has led to owls relying more than ever on the high moth populations in the few patches of woodland left dotted around the city. Without moths as their primary food source, many of our protected species wouldn’t be able to survive.

However, their importance isn’t just limited to their place in the food chain. Many are in fact pollinators, playing a crucial role across the world in enabling fertilization and seed production to take place among numerous plant species. Perhaps the most famous of these is Xanthopan morganii, more commonly known as Darwin’s moth. Although it was only officially discovered in 1992, the existence of a moth which adapted to have a proboscis (a tongue-like appendage for extracting nectar) long enough to extract nectar from the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale. This orchid has a nectary often up to a foot long inside the plant. This idea of a moth adapting to exist in relation to an orchid acted as a cornerstone for Darwin’s theory of evolution though natural selection The discovery of this hawk moth species native to Madagascar and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa only strengthens his argument further.

Hummingbird hawkmoth

Hummingbird hawkmoth credit  Derek Moore

 Although London may not have such extreme examples, its hawk moth population, such as the hummingbird hawk-moth(pictured above), are known to pollinate lavender and other vibrant plants throughout summer. Considering the sharp decline in bee and other insect populations across the UK, this service which moths provide may become even more valuable in the future in conserving plant life.  

Camera Trap Workshop

Camera Trap Workshop credit Penny Dixie

About Keeping it Wild

Keeping it Wild is a new project, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, that will empower and inspire 600 young people aged 11-25, from backgrounds currently under-represented in natural heritage, to gain vital skills while discovering, conserving and sharing their experiences of the capital’s wild spaces. 16-25-year-olds are invited to apply for a 12 week Traineeship, paid via a bursary. They based at one of our reserves, where they spend time learning from the London Wildlife Trust team, gaining valuable practical skills in urban nature conservation. Additional support for the Traineeships has been generously donated by the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers.

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