Pollinators of the Night

Do you ever bite into an apple or a strawberry and wonder how it’s possible that you’re eating such a divine fruit? Probably not, but it might be time to consider a deeper look into the process. You might be surprised…

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. That’s one out of every three bites of food we eat! When thinking of different types of pollinators, our minds usually go to the obvious: bees and butterflies. But they’re not the only ones hard at work to ensure the balance and success of life as we know it.

Most bees and butterflies call it a night, but that doesn’t mean their work is complete. That’s why bats, moths, beetles and other insects take over the night shift.

a moth on some flowers

According to the U.S. Forest Service, bats typically visit flowers that are open at night, large in size, very fragrant and produce plenty of nectar. Bats feed on insects in the flowers as well as on the nectar and flower parts. Interestingly—and surprisingly—enough, over 300 species of fruit, including bananas and mangoes, depend on bats for pollination.

According to the Virginia Zoo, we do not actually have pollinating bats in Virginia, but our bats are important, nonetheless, especially for pest control. They eat thousands of insects a night! If only we could send them thank-you cards…

Pollinator research from University College London (UCL) found that moths, in particular, serve a more significant role than previously suspected. In fact, the researchers observed a diverse assemblage of moths transporting pollen from many different plant species, including some flowers that are not often visited by bees. One reason moths are incredibly important is because they facilitate genetic diversity in plant communities across various landscapes since they tend to move much longer distances between plants than bees.

Cool, right? Unfortunately, there’s more to the story.

Imagine the tense score you hear during the turning point of a movie, and prepare yourselves for the bad news: the moth population has significantly declined due to major threats like habitat loss and disease. One of the biggest dangers to moths is light pollution.

Although we can’t always control the misfortunes of the world like natural diseases, we can—and should—control artificial light. These insects often flock to white and pale-colored flowers, according to herbalist Tammi Hartung, and because of this, bright white lighting woefully attracts and disorients moths at night.

impomea in the evening

While we’ve recently just started acknowledging and appreciating the immense impacts moths have, we should be more proactive before it’s too late—and this is where the good news makes its grand entrance. There are many things we can do, indeed, to lessen the negative effects of artificial lighting on these vital insects. One way to assist in the fight to save these populations is to switch to amber lighting outside our homes. Many sources have found that amber-colored light is much less visible to a variety of bugs, not just moths, so this is a win-win in getting rid of those pesky insects! Bye-bye mosquitoes, anyone?

Another thing to do that is beneficial to moths—and a cool weekend project for the whole family—is to plant a moon garden. The name itself is whimsical and fun, isn’t it? Green Spring Garden Site Manager Judy Zatsick mused, “With our climate, it is lovely to sit on a deck or screened porch and gaze at the white garden.”

a garden in the evening

When creating a moon garden, silver foliage plants and white and pale pink flowers are the best for reflecting moonlight and attracting moths. Zatsick recommended the moonflower (Ipomea alba). “It is a robust vine with large fragrant white flowers that open at dusk,” Zatsick explained. “It needs a trellis for support [and] a lot of room. Large moths are attracted to it.”

Other examples of good plants for a moon garden, according to Zatsick, include Leucanthemum, Cosmos, Clethra, Hydrangea arborescens, Petunia, Allium, Hosta—especially those with variegated or light color leaves—Phlox paniculate and Oenethera.

two white impomea flowers

Pay close attention to the site you choose for your moon garden too. Gardening Know-How recommends picking a place near your deck, patio or porch, but no matter where you decide, be sure that area receives plenty of moonlight. This is good for the plants, but it also illuminates the bright colors of the garden for your enjoyment. The sweet smells are also a plus. “Pale gravel, statuary or benches in light colors all add to the evening scene,” Zatsick added.

So, as you get back to your summer activities, remember the poor souls on the night shift that make your fruit snack possible. And be sure to return the favor!

Author Georgia Coffman is a staff writer with the Park Authority Public Information Office.

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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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