Most people think of moths as creatures that flutter around porch lights at night, never realizing the critical role they play in man’s survival on the planet. Bees and butterflies are considered by most as beloved insects while moths go mostly ignored. However, these superheroes of the insect world are finally getting the recognition they deserve with an entire week dedicated to raising awareness of their plight.
To celebrate National Moth Week, July 17-25, the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge hosted its annual Moth Night Out on Saturday, July 24, at the Refuge’s headquarters on FM 1011 in Liberty.
Perhaps not surprisingly, only a dozen or so people turned out to learn more about moths, but among the guests that evening were Bob and Kelli Phillips, co-hosts of Texas Country Reporter, a show that tells “the stories of real Texans – ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
Bob Phillips, who started the show 50 years ago as a freshman in college, said he came to see the expert in moths – former TRWRC Director Stuart Marcus. While Marcus retired in 2019, he remains committed to the annual Moth Night Out events and was happy to share his expertise with TV viewers.
Of the approximately 160,000 moth species found in the world, 900 species have been catalogued and photographed at the Refuge by Marcus.
“We were brought not just by the moths but by Stuart. After doing some research, we found he is one of the experts, whether he claims to be or not. He is one of the big experts. This subject is something people don’t know a lot about and probably don’t think about, which makes it perfect for us,” Bob said. “We hear all the time that if our bees die out, then our food sources will go away, too. We don’t hear that about the moths and it’s just as true for them.”
That message was echoed by Laurie Gonzales, a TRNWR biologist who presented the program at Moth Night Out. She spoke about how light pollution is a growing threat to moth populations and can no longer be dismissed as an urban problem.
“Since the 1950s, things have been changing in America. We might not have noticed. Our night skies are getting a lot brighter. In fact, with a growth of 6 percent per year, all of the developed world might lose its dark skies by the end of the 21st Century,” she said.
While humans may be only mildly annoyed by light pollution and the flying insects that come with it, for moths, light pollution is a deadly problem, she added.
“We usually don’t notice because the problem is gone by the morning. Out of sight, out of mind, but there is something bigger going on here. We have entered the Anthropocene,” Gonzales said, referring to the time in the planet’s history during which humans have a substantial impact. “We have already entered the next progression into mass extinction. There have already been five mass extinctions in the past and we are entering the new one. It means that at one point, there was a rapid environmental change or for some other reasons, 75 percent of the species in the world die off all at once.”
Simply put, human-driven changes may hasten our own demise.
While there are multiple stressors that are causing a catastrophic native insect decline, such as urbanization, agriculture intensification, invasive species and climate change, every person on the planet can make small changes and have a big impact simply by turning off more of their outdoor lights at night.
“We think of it as an urban problem. Houston is so bright, but if any of you live here in Liberty and you go out to look at the night sky, you will see that we have skyglow, too. It’s coming from our rural areas,” Gonzales said.
Moths navigate at night using the moon as a reference and bright lights interfere with their sense of direction, which is why they can be seen circling nightlights until the point of exhaustion or until they are gobbled up by bats and other predators.
“Almost everything eats moths in some way or another. In the food web, moths are very important … The moth is feeding the spiders and the birds. Don’t forget that the juicy caterpillars (produced by moths laying eggs) feed everything else in the food chain. So what happens when those lights are on? We lose that adult moth and all the eggs she would have produced. Then you start losing young caterpillars, which causes you to lose your bats, spiders, birds, reptiles, amphibians and everything else, including humans,” she said.
In addition to turning off unneeded lights, one way that humans can help moths is by creating moon gardens using native flowers that moths love.
“If you produce a moon garden, I encourage you to use native flowers, flowers that have pink, pale colors, a dull red color that are very strong-smelling and open up at night,” she said. “You can put all the moon gardens you want out there, but they might not get to it because they are too busy circling the lights.”
If you are interested in seeing the Texas Country Reporter show about Moth Night Out, you will have to wait until next spring. The show is set to air on March 13, 2022, and can be found on at least one TV station in every major market.
“It’s the longest-running, independently-produced show in American television history. We have produced upwards of 4,500 shows. Each one of those shows has three segments. What’s amazing is we still have a great audience. We do all the things that normally don’t work in television. We don’t follow the rules,” Bob said.
To see show listings, go online to www.texascountryreporter.com.