The Unexpected Pollinators That Lurk at Night

Moths are a unique and surprisingly important species when it comes to pollination. They spend their busiest times moving around while the sun is down and no one is there to see, so until recently, few gave them credit for the extensive work they do in sustaining our ecologies. Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

We all know and love the butterflies, bees and hummingbirds that float plant to plant while the sun shines, idyllic companions to our wanderings through nature. But when moonlight replaces the sunshine and we are deep in our REM cycles, another — perhaps underappreciated — pollinator is hard at work.

Moths may not be the poster child for pollination, but 381 moth species have been recorded to pollinate nearly 47 different plant species. Although most species of moths, like most pollinators, do so accidentally while looking for sugar to feed on from the plants, the list of plants that benefit from moth pollination is extensive. 

“They pollinate pine trees, grasses, legumes, plants in the Asteraceae family (sunflowers, daisies), tomatoes, peppers, carnations,” Lucy Guarnieri, a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University, said. 

Guarnieri works in the entomology department studying urban moth conservation, and is currently undertaking field research in Ohio metroparks, surveying moth pollination.

Ohio’s metropark landscape plays a significant role in Guarnieri’s research. The abundant milkweed, northwestern red oak trees and golden ragwort found in the state are all plant species moths frequently help pollinate. They serve as habitats for the moths to lay eggs and sugar for the moths to eat, and also help the moths have a safe and comfortable place to go about their life processes. In other words, they rely on this environment to continue to pollinate the lush greenery and vast variety of plant species in Ohio. 

Guarnieri has observed moth activity in a range of environments across Columbus, including Scioto Audobon Park, Battelle Darby Creek, Whetstone Prairie, the Columbus Park of Roses and near the Olentangy watershed.

Karen Menard, supervisor of monitoring and research for Metroparks Toledo, has opened her studies to moth pollination, as well. 

According to Menard, there are 25 moth species in the Toledo area that have been recorded in her research. These include orchid-pollinating species such as the large looper moth and the unspotted looper moth. 

Another moth species found in Ohio is the luna moth, which spends much of its time on dried-up fallen leaves and only lives for about a week. While their lifespan is short, they serve a crucial role in local ecosystems as food to other nocturnal creatures, such as owls and bats. Luna moths also break down leaves in our yards, leaving behind a potent fertilizer for flower and plant beds.

There is also a unique species of moth found in Ohio — and in particular its parks — called the yucca moth. The yucca moth has coevolved with the yucca plant in a symbiotic relationship. 

A luna moth. Image courtesy of Megan McCarty via Wikimedia Commons.

“The yucca plant is only pollinated by this one species of moth and without it, the plant would not survive,” Guarnieri said.

Although these special pollinators are unique in some ways, their populations are battling extinction rates the same way their counterparts, the bees and butterflies, have been. Endangered moth species Menard has studied in Toledo’s metroparks include the buck moth and the tiger moth. 

Protecting the land where these moths live is crucial, not only for the moths, but also for the well-being of the environment in which they serve an important role.

“Not just for pollinating, but because birds eat them — bats, as well. They are an important element of the food web,” Guarnieri said. 

According to Guarnieri, when moth species are in their caterpillar stage, they eat decaying plants, which helps to recycle nutrients back into the soil. These caterpillars also serve as a delicious meal for Ohioan predators higher in the food chain.

A yucca moth. Image courtesy of Jacy Lucier via Wikimedia Commons.

“Approximately 75% of Ohio’s songbirds depend on caterpillar prey, and the food is extremely critical for their young,” Menard said. 

According to experts, being environmentally conscious and educating ourselves on the roles these secret pollinators play is a big step in the right direction. Guarnieri suggests we follow similar steps that have been taken to “save the bees”: “Planting flowers, trying to limit the use of insecticides … trying to limit the use of artificial light at night.”

Other ways to aid preservation include following environmentally friendly procedures such as recycling, reducing pesticide use in soil, using less plastic, limiting unnecessary infrastructure sites, preserving natural resources and native plants on your own property and supporting farmers and scientists studying these environments on a wider scale.

While moths have flown under the radar for years, their impact on our environment is crucial.

“They’re very important,” Guarnieri said. “It’s impossible to know what our lives would be without them. But I don’t think we should try to find out.”


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