The Wisdom of the Moth in a Changing World

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in North Carolina ranging from 60° to 90° F, things have been pretty wacky lately. In early July, the black walnut tree in my backyard started to drop nuts, which usually doesn’t happen until September. Dogwoods in the neighborhood have started to change color, and a few of them have simply died. Very few fireflies have been active this year, and they’re usually prolific from June to August. Thunderous rainstorms with torrential downpour and destructive winds have been punctuated by periods of dry and sunny weather that parches the ground until it cracks after little more than a week or two. All in all, the reality of climatic collapse–which is what climate change should really be called–is indisputable by anyone with observant eyes and a reasonably functional brain.

Nonetheless there have been a few recent occurrences which are normal for this time of year. Tomatoes have been ripening, corn has been rising, crepe myrtles have been blooming, and sunsets have been breathtaking. There’ve also been an abundance of moths at my doorstep and on the trails where I hike. A few of them caught my attention and prompted me to take a few photos. Those photos in turn prompted me to do a little research, the result of which is the article you’re now reading.

This Carolina satyr moth (Hermeuptychia sosybius) was sunning herself serenely on the prolific vegetation bordering the Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough when I went for a hike recently. I approached her slowly and did my best not to startle her. She seemed oblivious to the intrusion and carried on her business with the seriousness of a professional athlete, moving her wings to demonstrate the distinct pattern of circles and dots which characterize the Carolina satyr moth. It was a beautiful day, so I could understand her agreeable disposition. The area was probably also her home, since the grasses which predominate around the Eno are the preferred food for Carolina satyr caterpillars and make for a perfect nursery.

A few weeks ago I was coming in my front door after watering my plants in the evening when I noticed the brilliant coloration of this harnessed tiger moth (Apantesis phalerata). The bands of black and yellow are immediately recognizable; they make me think of a bumblebee who was perhaps slightly confused when choosing his final form. In any case, I was glad to know that someone in my yard has been taking advantage of the dandelions, clover, and plantains–all of which are the preferred food of harnessed tiger moths in their early stages of development.

When I saw this walnut sphinx moth (Amorpha juglandis) on my mailbox on a separate occasion, I very nearly swooned. This little guy was almost three inches across and looked much, much heavier than most moths of his size. Clearly he’d been munching on a tree in the area and had the gains to prove it. Additionally his abdomen, at the rear of his body, curved upward in the most striking resemblance to a scorpion tail that I’ve ever seen in a moth. Despite this resemblance, he was perfectly at peace and paid no attention to my presence, which gave me this lovely photographic opportunity.

So, despite the weird and wacky climate, which is slowly but steadily collapsing in front of our very eyes, these moths have found a way to cope. They might not be leading any protest marches or boycotting extractive industries, but they’re doing what they do best: munching away, growing fat, changing form, and emerging from their cocoons to spread the pollen of plants in a cycle of life that makes all of our lives possible.

And we should be doing the same. By taking care of ourselves, developing our skills and abilities, resting when necessary, and emerging from our cocoons to take action in whatever way we’re able, we can take the wisdom of the moth to heart. And in the process we’ll be making a difference in this world that will not only help others but bring our lives purpose, making possible a united effort to preserve the one and only home we have in this universe, our planet earth.

References:

Amorpha juglandis,” Wikipedia, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Apantesis phalerata,” Wikipedia, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius),” University of Florida, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Pippen, Jeff, “Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius),” Jeff’s Nature Page, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Subfamily Arctiinae — Tiger and Lichen Moths,” North American Insects and Spiders, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis),” Butterflies and Moths of North America, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

By now most people are aware of the fact that honeybees are facing the very real threat of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honeybees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honeybees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries. Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honeybees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honeybee dies.

In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honeybees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances. In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators: 1) I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible; 2) I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy; and 3) I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard. Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honeybees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honeybees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honeybees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

Another pollinator plant in my yard — that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon — is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honeybees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival. To that end we need to do a few things. 1) We need to hold biopharmaceutical corporations — which are primarily responsible for manufacturing pesticides — accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities. 2) We need to stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops. 3) We need to support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people. 4) We need to get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can. 5) We need to show enough love and appreciation for those essential pollinators in our own backyards to help them in whatever way we can. For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare for all of us.

References:

Batsakis, Anthea, “What Is Colony Collapse Disorder — and Is There Hope for Bees?Cosmos Magazine, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Ellis, J., “Why Are Honey Bees Disappearing?” University of Florida, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Sarich, Christina, “List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees,” Natural Society, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Shell, Robbie, “What We Know — and Don’t Know — about Colony Collapse Disorder,” excerpted from Bees on the Roof, accessed May 19th, 2017.