Moths. Some people love ’em, some people hate ’em, and most people probably don’t have very strong opinions about them one way or another.
Fortunately, for the sake of both your education and amusement, I am not most people.
I was originally going to say that I had a love-hate relationship with moths growing up, but it was really more of an acquaintanceship bordering the line between annoyance and admiration. I can remember many a summer night hurrying to get in the front door before the napkin-colored moths around our porchlights could imbed themselves in my hair. On the other hand, I once kept what I believe was an injured tent caterpillar moth I named Ariel in a tissue box for a few days to try and nurse it back to health. The older I got, the more I grew to appreciate moths, and this past school year I was particularly fascinated by the variety of beautiful, nocturnal lepidopterans clinging to the brick walls of my apartment building.
I never could have predicted the wide array of arthropods I’d find living in that stairwell when I moved into the suite last fall. I’ve seen katydids, potato bugs, house spiders, caterpillars, and of course many different moth species. There was even a katydid resting on the front door when I first walked up on move-in day. While the katydids/bellhops will always have a special place in my heart (and the house spiders will have a place in my nightmares), I met my absolute favorite stairwell arthropod just days before moving out.
After finishing one of my final exams online at the suite late one afternoon, I decided to go grab an early dinner. When I got to the bottom of the stairs on my way out, however, I spotted a giant moth resting on crack in the sidewalk. Our stairwell has been home to such specimens as the American Oak Beauty, the Laudable Arches, and a multitude of ornate sphinx moths, but this was by far the largest and most beautiful moth I had ever lied eyes on.
“Please don’t be dead,” I said out loud (quarantine may have made me a little crazy), bending down to see if he was all right. Thankfully, the moth was very much alive, but it was a windy day and I was concerned with how much the breeze was pummeling his massive wings. I took a picture of the moth and posted the photo to Seek, which told me I had stumbled across a Polyphemus moth. Naturally, I dubbed him Odysseus to stick with the Odyssey theme.
Deciding to move him out of the walkway so he wouldn’t get stepped on or continually blasted by the strong winds, I put my hand in front of Odysseus and was overjoyed when he crawled onto my finger.
See, that’s where moths are just so much better than butterflies – and do NOT say butterflies are prettier, luna moths alone far outshine any butterfly you will ever lay eyes on. I spent many a spring or summer day in my childhood chasing butterflies around the yard or standing perfectly still hoping they would think I was a flower or something, and yet I’ve only ever had a butterfly land on me once. On the other hand, I couldn’t count the number of moths that have landed on me over the years. Butterflies think they’re too good for you, but moths just want to be your friend.
Moths aren’t just cute and friendly, either; they’re actually super important pollinators that contribute to both appreciated and overlooked flowering plants, similarly to the more familiar diurnal pollinators. Both moths and their caterpillars are also popular snack items for a variety of animals, including bats and baby birds. Additionally, moths are critical indicator species in ecosystems around the world that can alert us when alterations to their habitat become detrimental.
Do you know how many moths have clothes-eating caterpillars in the United States? Two. Do you know how many moth species there are in the United States? Eleven… thousand. That’s right, there are at least 10,998 unique, wonderful moths around the U.S. just doing their thing, contributing to the biosphere, and only two species whose babies like to chew holes in old sweaters you probably hadn’t worn in years anyway. I think it’s about time we give moths the respect they deserve, y’all.
Anyway, back to the story: after a few selfies, Odysseus and I began an odyssey of our own around the quad looking for a good place for him to rest, preferably out of the wind and away from oblivious footfalls. Along the way, I kept paparazziing him and sent a truckload of pictures to my friends and family, most of whom were just as enamored by the handsome insect as I was. Not my suitemate though – she’s usually willing to help whenever I get myself into arthropod antics around the suite, but she’s not a fan of lepidopterans and wasn’t exactly thrilled when I FaceTimed her and filled her phone screen with a giant moth. On a definitely unrelated note, she moved out the next morning.
Eventually, I found a nice oak tree for Odysseus and put my hand on it so he could crawl onto the bark. I checked on him a few more times that evening, but he was gone the next morning so I assume he flew away overnight. Apparently you can keep Polyphemus moths as pets, but I think my suitemate would have moved out even faster or perhaps had a heart attack if I’d brought Odysseus inside.
Next time you see a couple of moths bumping their heads against a streetlight, take the time to give them a nod and thank them for all the hard work they do under cover of night. Just refrain from talking to them out loud so your neighbors won’t think you’re crazy.
Feel free to take selfies with them, though, that’s definitely a completely normal thing to do.