While you’re sitting outside on the patio after dark this summer, you won’t be alone. All around you will be a whole world of nocturnal insects. Although some of them may be annoying, most of them will fly around unnoticed by most people. But there are an amazing variety of nighttime insects, and each of them is fascinating in its own way!
One nighttime insect that is often associated with summer is the June bug (or the May beetle, as it is sometimes called). Although they are harmless, June bugs often startle people because they are large and make a loud buzzing sound. They are also very much attracted to light, but are not very good flyers; so they often crash into things or exhaust themselves. When that happens, they then become food for birds, as well as some nocturnal mammals such as skunks and raccoons. We see them most often during May and June (hence their names) because that’s their mating season. But beetles have been around for over 230 million years; so although you won’t see them much later in the summer, they’ll be back next year!
Probably, the most common nocturnal insects, though, are moths. Most moths are nocturnal (with the exception of hummingbird moths), which differentiates them from butterflies, so they often go unnoticed. But, there are actually over 11,000 species of moths in the U.S., almost 10x more species than butterflies. In fact, there are more species of moths in North America than there are bird and mammal species combined. That means that moths come in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and amazing adaptations!
Although moths may not look that important as they inconspicuously fly around your porch light, they are actually quite valuable. For one thing, many of them are important pollinators. In fact, there are some flowers that only open at night so that they can be pollinated specifically by moths. The flowers tend to be light-colored and very fragrant so that the moths can find them in the darkness.
Moths are also very important sources of food. A bat typically eats up to 1,000 insects an hour, many of which are moths. In fact, bats use echolocation to catch moths and other insects in almost total darkness. In addition, most birds eat either caterpillars or adult insects, and many of those insects are moths or moth caterpillars. And, in some African countries, over 90% of the people also eat moth and butterfly caterpillars. Caterpillars are actually chock-full of protein and healthy fats, as well as minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc.
Moths are also unique in some other ways, as well. For instance, although most adult moths drink nectar, some, like Luna moths, don’t eat at all; in fact, they don’t even have a mouth! They live less than a week as an adult and spend that time mating and laying eggs. Speaking of mating, some moths are very good at finding a mate. Male giant silkworm moths have very sophisticated antennae that can detect one molecule of a female pheromone from seven miles away! That’s a helpful skill to have if you’re looking for a mate after dark!
So, as you’re sitting outside after dark this summer, take a minute to notice the life flying all around you. June bugs and moths are unique insects that thrive at night. They may not seem as important to us as the butterflies and bees we see during the daytime, but they are important and unique in their own ways. And our nighttime air would be a lot less lively without them!
Lisa Ralls is a naturalist with Winnebago County Conservation Board.
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