Moths are important prey, pollinators and pests

Studying moths is a simple, low-cost method that can allow individual students or groups to collect moth specimens and begin to ask and answer questions about moth diversity and abundance in their local community. Moths can easily be found in students’ local places, including urban, suburban, agricultural, forested, and other habitats.

Moths in all life stages are critically important to ecological communities and food webs

As prey

Both caterpillars and adults serve as a major food resource as prey for predators such as bats, birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other insects that require eating moths to grow and reproduce. In one study, between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars were required to raise one brood of chickadees before they flew the nest! And bats are known to eat hundreds of nocturnal insects, including moths, each hour they are active. As larvae, they also play a key role in converting tough plant matter into nutrient rich frass (i.e. caterpillar droppings) which helps recycle nutrients.

As pollinators

Many adult moths will visit flowers to feed on nectar where they can pick up pollen. As a result, they can serve as pollinators and facilitate the development of fruits and seeds for plant reproduction. The fruits are food for wildlife and humans. In fact, some flowers, including the Evening Primrose and Moonflower, rely strictly on moths for pollination and only open at night. The Joshua Tree of the Mojave Desert and other yucca species are pollinated only by the yucca moth whose caterpillars then feed on the developing seeds in a unique symbiotic relationship.

As pests

Although consisting of a very small percentage of all moths, some moth species are important as pests when voracious caterpillars consume crops, trees, clothing, or stored grains and flour in our homes. In some habitats, population sizes can increase dramatically in certain years resulting in naturally occurring boom-and-bust cycles. For example, some species of tent caterpillars can consume so many leaves that many acres of forests may be defoliated in 10-20 year cycles.

Studying moths teaches students the process of science

Beyond their importance as prey, pollinators or pests, the diversity of moths in an area is also a good indicator of ecosystem health. Different moth species require a multitude of host plants for larval development, additional plants for adult feeding, and intact habitat for hiding and surviving seasonal extremes. Only when all of these are present, along with the appropriate levels of control by predators that prevent moth outbreaks, do we see the integrity of ecological relationships in a healthy balance.

Despite a general understanding of the importance of moths in the environment, relatively little is known scientifically about moth ecology and declines in abundance have been reported for many insects across the globe, including moths.