The Hidden World of Moths, Our Nocturnal Pollinators

Pollination is a vital part of most ecosystems and a necessary process for many farming operations. Daytime pollinators have been studied for years and have been found to be in danger from the effects of habitat fragmentation, climate change and pesticide use.

Where do nocturnal pollinators fit in?

Pollination is very hard to study in the dark, so the full picture is not yet understood. However, we do know that there are some flies, beetles and bats that are important pollinators, and that the main nocturnal pollinators are moths—the butterflies of the night.

The Smithsonian has reported that there are 160,000 species of moths in the world, compared to 17,500 species of butterflies. The pollinating moth families include the nectar-feeding varieties from the families Sphingidae, Noctuidae, Geometridae, Erebidae and possibly others.

  • a sphinx moth on some rocks
  • a dagger moth on some wood
  • a geometrid moth blending in to its environment
  • a fall webworm moth on some sand

In recent years, a decline in moth populations in Europe and parts of the United States has been documented. This issue connects us to Pollinator Week (celebrated annually in June), which was initiated 14 years ago and marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Recent findings related to moth population declines, and even the effect of light pollution on daytime species like the monarch butterfly, emphasize the continued need for awareness and support of pollinators.

Insects make up 60% of the species on Earth and are still poorly understood. But recent studies have shown overall declines in insect populations in Europe and North America. It is too early to tell if these declines are occurring worldwide, and studies on moths have shown some species populations increasing, while others are decreasing—with no clear pattern found yet. This might be where light pollution comes in. Nighttime pollinators may be affected in positive or negative ways by artificial light at night.

Though some species of moths have been found to avoid plants in artificial light situations, moths of all types can be seen flying toward lights at night. This attraction to light concentrates the moths in a single location, which can lead to heavy predation by bats and other moth-eating animals like toads. It can also result in the concentration of egg laying, which can lead to intense competition for food sources by the larvae.

Other studies have shown that artificial light may even cause temporal disorientation, changing the moths’ typical biorhythms, as well as spatial disorientation, disrupting an organism’s ability to navigate in three-dimensional space. It has even been found to cause a decrease in reproduction in Geometrid moths.

What do all these recent studies actually show us? Unfortunately, we still don’t know what we don’t know. We may never understand all the effects of light pollution on moth populations, but evidence suggests that most animals are not adapted to thrive under any condition labeled “artificial.”

So, what does this all mean for you? If you enjoy the fruits of pollination and want to keep pollination and other ecosystem services humming along, consider letting nature be natural: use integrated natural pest-management practices instead of pesticides whenever feasible, and avoid lighting your garden at night so plants can sleep, and moths can do their job in the dark.

Learn more about the effects of artificial light and how you can help protect the night on our Dark Skies page.

Author Tammy Schwab is the education and outreach manager for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

References

MacGregor, C. J., Pocock, M. J., Fox, R., & Evans, D. M. (2015). “Pollination by Nocturnal Lepidoptera, and the Effects of Light Pollution: A Review.” Ecological Entomology, 40(3), 187–198. https://doi.org/10.1111/een.12174

van Geffen, K. G., van Eck, E., de Boer, R., van Grunsven, R. H. A., Salis, F., Berendse, F., & Veenendaal, E. M. “Artificial Light at Night Inhibits Mating in a Geometrid Moth.” Insect Conservation and Diversity, 8(3), 282-287. https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12116

Owens, A. C. S. & Lewis, S. M. “The Impact of Artificial Light at Night on Nocturnal Insects: A Review and Synthesis.” Ecology and Evolution, 8(22), 11337-11358.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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