Let A Moth Wing Into Your Life
Insects are often associated with noise. The buzz of a fly, the hungry whine of a mosquito, the song of a cricket, and the metallic sound of a cicada. And then, there are the insects who are distinguished by the utter quietness of their presence.
Like the ones that flutter to your window side in the evenings, wings covered in dust, antennae-like feathers. You may not have noticed the moth’s quietude and utter stillness, but moths are all around us. In the last week of July, the world celebrates National Moth Week. This is a time when people are encouraged to become citizen scientists and record moths around them. This year, moth observations have been pouring in on social media.
Everyone knows butterflies – they are usually the first insect we learn to draw and colour. Though moths are related to butterflies, they are lesser-known. This could be because most moths are nocturnal, and inactive during the day. You may have an unmoving moth in your room, blending in perfectly with the curtain, unlike a giddy, psychedelic butterfly that is hardly ever still.
This isn’t the best time for insect species, because it is widely believed that the world is going through an ‘insectaggedon’ – a crash in local populations of insects due to changing climate patterns and increased pesticide and toxin use. Consider scenes from your own childhoods. Gardens buzzed far more with honeybees and carpenter bees (the ‘bhavra’ in Hindi), and seasons were marked by insects. The monsoons annually brought winged termites, the spring brought butterflies, rains brought the sound of crickets. Small black insects emerged during warm spells, covering everything. Now, we have toxins in the land and the sea and far fewer insects. Some bees are doing so badly that they require assistance for population recovery. It would be a tragedy to lose moths before we even begin naming or learning more about them. This makes citizen science for moths important throughout the year.
Some remarkable moths are likely very close to you – and they are full of adaptations that boggle the mind.
Several moths don’t have mouthparts. Some believe this is because they evolved before flowers did. Other theories say the moth’s main purpose is to mate and produce eggs, and so some don’t feel the need to eat food as adults. The biggest moths—the Atlas moths—do not have a mouth. I first saw the Atlas moth in Singapore. It is huge, almost the size of a palm. But I was most struck by its stillness. It sat on my hand like a furry creature with a preternatural presence. The stunning moon or luna moths are pale green with wings shaped like pointed petals, and they also don’t have mouthparts, settling on leaves in repose.
Then there are the silk moths, from whose cocoons tussar silk is extracted. They have translucent spots on their wings – which resemble eyes to deter predators.
Smaller moths are likely to enter your home. Some of my early memories of power cuts in Delhi is studying by candlelight while keeping one eye on moths who would suddenly emerge and get attracted to the flame of the candle. Most were white, with fine dust on their wings, active only when they saw the light. At this time of the year, the commonly found brown and white beet webworm moth is seen.
One of my personal favourites is the amata moth. It will look like a wasp when you first see it. It has stripes on its body-coloured orange-yellow and black like a wasp—and black wings with neat spots. This is biomimicry, a defense strategy by an otherwise defenceless species. The amata is active during the day, but if it looks like a wasp, it’s less likely to get eaten. Then there is the hawkmoth genus, which has large moths, many looking like they are wearing army fatigues.
In places with rain, if you want to see a moth, all you need is to turn on a light at night. Like a call to domicile, moths will come. The simplest way to see them is to turn on a strong light or bulb falling on a white surface, like a wall or sheet of cloth. That’s the beginning of ‘mothing’. You’ll be rewarded with fantastic shapes and sizes. Some moths have antennae like feathers (butterflies have antennae with hooks or clubs at the end.) Other moths have antennae that look like leaves. Some are bigger than butterflies, others the size of a fingernail. Some look like they are smothered in fur. Some have tails, perhaps to throw off the echolocation of bats, who catch and eat moths.
The monsoon night is still shrouded with Covid-19, and just a bit isolated. Close to you, a moth may be pollinating a white, night-blooming flower. The next time you turn on a light in the dark, look out for a moth. It will brush into your life noiselessly, ancient adaptations on wings. The moth is still escaping climate change and erratic rainfall patterns, winging its way through a pandemic. Pay attention to this unobtrusive creature – and you may form an unlikely rainy day memory.
Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.