Monday, August 6, 2012

Time to Delete "Moth" From Our Vocabulary

I recently learned of a controversial theory of metamorphosis that got me thinking about moths and butterflies. More on that later. Perhaps National Moth Week also had something to do with my thought process, and/or a Facebook post by a friend purporting a difference between moths and butterflies. Folks, there is no such thing as a difference between moths and butterflies.

There is no difference between moths and butterflies that does not have exceptions:

  • Moths have feathery antennae. This is a myth. A few do, the males’ more “feathery” than the females’, the better to detect her pheromones wafting on the winds. Most moths have filamentous (hair-like) antennae.
  • Moths are active at night. Hogwash. Most species are nocturnal, but there are plenty that fly during the day. Many fly both day and night. There are some butterflies that are nocturnal for that matter. I have personally seen some hairstreak butterflies attracted to lights at night.
  • Moth caterpillars spin cocoons. Hardly any moth caterpillars spin cocoons, actually. Most simply have a naked pupa (the term “chrysalis” could also apply), often underground, sometimes inside a gallery the caterpillar bored in dead wood or living stem, stalk, or root. A cocoon does help insulate a pupa in exposed situations during weather extremes, so some species add this silken covering.
  • Moths eat clothing. There is so much wrong with that statement I’m not sure where to begin. The larvae (caterpillars) of some moths do consume dried animal products like wool garments and blankets, but they are in an extreme minority. The feeding habits of the vast majority of moth caterpillars are of no consequence to people whatsoever.

It is that last item that hints at the real reason we insist on an artificial distinction between moths and butterflies. We need a villain, and the moth is it. Butterflies can do no wrong! They are colorful and carefree and their larvae eat weeds we don’t like. Moths are evil, their caterpillars consuming our crops and ravaging our forests. Moths are black, brown, or gray, and hide themselves in shame by day, only daring to emerge under the cloak of darkness that is night.

Moth Week may have started to peck away a little at the mythology of moths, but we should consider banishing the term “moth” from our lexicon altogether. Science recognizes that weevils, “ladybugs,” and “fireflies” are all types of beetles. Mosquitoes, gnats, and no-see-ums are acknowledged as types of flies. Moths are butterflies, by virtue of the fact that they are in the same order: Lepidoptera.

The theory of metamorphosis that made it onto National Public Radio implies that it isn’t butterflies and moths that are different, but the adult stage and the caterpillar stage. So different are they that perhaps they are separate species merged into one being. The caterpillar leads an entirely different lifestyle than the adult, and “dies” during the pupal stage, only to be “resurrected” as a new, winged creature at the conclusion of the life cycle. Yes, the majority of the scientific community scoffs at this idea, perhaps rightly so, but one can argue that the similarities between adult butterflies and moths are much smaller than the differences between the larva and adult of any one species.

Moths need positive attention for many, many reasons:

  • Scores of moth species are endangered, or have populations that truly border on unsustainable. Contrast that with the “sky is falling” cries from butterfly conservationists every time there is the slightest slump in populations of hibernating Monarch butterflies.
  • Moths are true pollinators, while butterflies (and many moths, to be fair) are merely “flower visitors.” Female yucca moths (family Prodoxidae) intentionally stuff a wad of pollen into the stigma of the host plant, thereby fertilizing it. The moth does this because her caterpillars require viable yucca seeds on which to feed. The caterpillars rarely consume the entire seed set, and both host and herbivore prosper. Several tropical orchid species rely solely on certain sphinx moths for pollination.
  • Moths are incredibly important to the food chain. Countless birds, bats, even grizzly bears, rely on moths as a food source. Oh, add fish, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and other insects to that list. Many of those predators are in fact moth specialists. Some spiders even mimic the pheromones of certain female moths to attract the male moths to their webs.

It is time to call “moths” what they really are: butterflies. Time to stop discriminating based on assumptions, myths, and preconceived notions of what moths should be. Reality is far more subtle, and nature lacks the anthrocentric lens we view Her through. Our vocabulary should reflect that reality, and not our prejudice, cynicism, and biases. Who is with me?

16 comments:

  1. I'm totally with you, I've been annoyed since I discovered there is no meaningful taxonomic difference between a butterfly and a moth...

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  2. Just about the same discussion that Dave Wagner and I had with the participants of my South West Wings black lighting trip at Ramsey Canyon. Of course we put a different spin on it: While generally calling them all 'leps' we kind of scoffed at the 'butterfly' part of the group, because there are so few species, everyone likes them, most hobbyists know them, even most birders get to identify them...but moths, with their incredible variety, are for the truly dedicated specialists (-:

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  3. Just after this in my RSS feed came Martha Stewart's Daily Wag blog, which had this to say today: "These buckeye plants also attract moths. Many species of moths are nocturnal, but not this one. Moths differ from butterflies in body shape, wing coloring, and that they form a cocoon and not a chrysalis for metamorphosis. ... Many people consider moths, and not butterflies, to be pests. However, butterflies can be pests, too! Butterflies lay eggs on host plants that hatch as caterpillars and guess what? They eat the host plants!"

    Spouse says that one difference is that most adult moths don't eat, but all butterflies do. Not so?

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    1. Many moths feed on flower nectar, oozing sap (especially if it is fermenting), aphid honeydew, and other sweet carbohydrates, just like butterflies. Some moths have extremely short lifespans as adults (family Saturniidae for example), and so are fueled by fat stored in the caterpillar stage. They do not feed at all as adults. They don't even have mouthparts....Thanks for sharing part of Martha Stewart's blog. How ironic!

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  4. Or maybe we should delete the word 'butterfly' and call them all moths?

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    1. Point taken! After all, there are far more moth species than there are butterflies.

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  5. This I did not know. I wish more people knew this and stopped associating the word moth with "evil" to me moths have always been as lovely as any butterfly. The term moth has been a part of my vocab for so long now It will be a hard habit to break.

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    1. I don't expect the term "moth" to disappear anytime soon, nor do I *really* want it to. Actually, I'd like to knock butterflies down off their pedestal a bit, by reminding people that moths are really more important ecologically....And I agree moths are gorgeous!

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    2. You know what the sad thing is? There are people who wI'll not care about the ecological aspects, and will still believe what they always have about moths: that they are pest. Which we all know to be false. We shouldn't want to knock butterflies off their pedestal, because they are as important as most any living creature on Earth. Moths just need more understanding and acceptance.

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    3. True enough, Lydia. I've always been a fan of the underdog, and equality, so I get a little annoyed by all the attention butterflies get.

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  6. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments!

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  7. Great post and comments! I also vote that we call them all moths. It's easier to go mothing than to go butterflying.

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  8. Ok, folks, sounds like we have consensus: Time to strike "butterfly" from our vocabulary :-)

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  9. I thought there was a small hook linking the fore and hind wings on moths that is absent on butterflies... But that's an aside - moths are amazing and largely under-rated. Though they are seemingly gaining a higher profile, and a talk - and especially showing them a moth trap - gets most of the public at least acknowledging that us mothers have a point, if not genuinely astounded.

    For those in any doubt that moths are the most spectacular and beautiful animals, join the group 'National Moth Week' on Facebook. Some truly jaw-dropping photos, even for experienced mothers.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/216601458356169/#!/pages/National-Moth-Week/224810697582268

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