The secret nightlife and ecological role of moths

Research reveals that we have been underestimating the importance of moths as pollinators.

Small elephant hawk-moth with greater butterfly orchid pollinia on its eyes

Small elephant hawk-moth with greater butterfly orchid pollinia on its eyes © John Bebbington


The invaluable role of bees as daytime pollinators for many of the plants we rely on for food is widely recognised, however what is only just becoming apparent is the vital supporting role played by moths - under cover of night. 

A joint study by scientists from the Universities of York, Newcastle and Hull suggests that moths have an important but often overlooked ecological role in dispensing pollen, often over large distances.

"Moths appear to complement the work of bees and can carry pollen over greater distances as they don't have the same ties to a particular part of the landscape," explains Dr Callum Macgregor of the University of York's Department of Biology, lead author in the research.

"While bees are excellent pollinators, they will only travel within the local environment of the nest."


Convolvulus hawk-moth feeding © Keith Baldie / Butterfly Conservation


The study found pollen grains from crops such as peas, soybean and oil-seed rape were detected on multiple moths despite a lack of previous evidence to suggest that moths play any role in the pollination of agricultural crops.

Importantly, moths travel more extensively than bees which could potentially help to prevent inbreeding amongst plants.

"Using new methods to analyse pollen enabled us to learn much more about our undervalued nocturnal ecosystems," adds Dr Darren Evans, from Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences.

"This highlights a need for more research into the role of moths as ecosystem service providers."

Read the paper in Ecological Entomology.


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