Pollinators working the night shift

Have you ever wondered who pollinates those flowers, like four o’clocks, moonflower and evening primrose, when they bloom at night?

In Indiana, it certainly isn’t the bat. They are all carnivores here. And it certainly isn’t the bees, wasps, flies or butterflies. They’re done for the day by the time the sun goes down. So who does that leave to pollinate the night-bloomers? The nocturnal moths.

Moths, as a species, outnumber butterflies seven to one in the world and provide a significant portion to the diet of diurnal songbirds (including nestlings and fledglings), common nighthawks (nocturnal songbird), bats, small owls and tree frogs.

We often do not pay attention to moths unless they eat some of our dry goods or clothing or unless they are magnificently colored, like the luna or lo moths.

Sometimes, we notice when they make a mess of our porch lights as they fly endlessly around them at night.

We do, however, enjoy those diurnal clearwing hummingbird moths who flit and fly like a hummingbird, making us look twice when we see one.

Why should a moth look all bold and beautiful for the night shift? Aside from some cool predatory defense systems, like echo-location blocking for bats or some suave dance moves of the luna moth’s tail, it’s back to camouflage and warning coloration to evade would-be predators of the day shift.

Moths are a great commodity for the typical homeowner to invest in, and it doesn’t take much investment, either.

If you already have a pollinator, butterfly or flower garden at home, then you can just add some additional plants and features to attract moths. If you do not have an already established garden, you just start with the basics of creating a pollinator, butterfly or flower garden and incorporate those moth features in your design.

Some of the best flowering plants for nectar are cream-colored flowering tobacco, evening primrose, four o’clocks, moonflower (both the vining and the datura species, which is poisonous to us) and pink runner bean, to name a few.

Moths are attracted to light/pale-colored flowers with large petals that reflect light and that are highly fragranced. Plant these in mass to act like beacons to make it easier for the moths to find. Because moth larvae often pupate on the ground, often using leaves to wrap in, you will need to leave your leaf litter on the ground or rake in a pile to let lay for the winter (or else you defeat the purpose).

Many moths love a change from nectar to feed on rotting fruit, so consider a tray of old fruit to place in the moth area, as well.

How do you know you attracted moths? Go outside on a warm evening after dark and take a flashlight. Many moths are attracted to light. See who is at your night-blooming flowers. Or put up a sheet that is tied down tightly and illuminated with a stationary light. Then wait and see what happens.

For those moths that do not prefer to nectar in light, use a sugaring technique to attract them. Make a sugar solution of sugar syrup, beer and fruit juice. Paint it on a vertical surface, like a tree trunk, a few hours before sundown. Come back with your flashlight and see the visitors.

Lastly, I cannot leave you without mentioning a little about moth conservation and light pollution. We can all do a little to help moths, simply by thinking about the lights on our homes.

Those moths that fly around your lights at night are confused about what they may be seeing and how to respond. Is it the sun or the moon? They waste a lot of energy, and that means they don’t produce as many eggs or provide a link in the food chain. Use red lights if you must or use lights that are triggered by motion and then turn off after a few minutes. Finally, get rid of those bug zappers. They kill more beneficial insects than the ones we intend to get.

So tonight, get outside, enjoy nature and see what you’ve been missing. Take the time to learn more about moths, their life cycles, host and nectar plants and change the evening dynamics at your home.

Kirsten Carlson is a biologist and educator who teaches at Ivy Tech Community College in Madison.