The show begins after sunset when you plant a moth garden

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) Any one working the night shift knows it can be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of experience. You sleep when you can and socialize as you can. And so it is with many insects, like the much-maligned moth.

The moth is primarily a creature of the night seldom noticed, therefore little regarded when compared with its more visible daytime cousin, the butterfly.

Butterflies seem to reap the glory although moths do as much, if not more, to help your garden grow.

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net

Moths transfer pollen from flower to flower; some produce silk and still others add dramatic splashes of color to your yard provided you don't mind seeking them out in the darkness.

All that disrespect exists despite the population dynamics moths greatly exceed butterfly species in the order Lepidoptera. ''In North America, about 750 butterfly species are recognized and about 10,500 moth species,'' says John Snyder, a biology professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Some adult moths are as small as mosquitoes while others grow larger than bats, wingtip to wingtip. ''The vast majority are small or brownish-gray in color,'' Snyder says. ''But others are not. Some are gorgeous animals. I've seen virtually every color of moth.''

 

The Luna moth is shown in a garden May 6, 2004 in New Makret, Va. Moths transfer pollen from flower to flower; some produce silk and still others add dramatic splashes of color to your yard.

AP Photo/Dean Fosdick

Butterfly gardens are the rage, nationwide, but when was the last time you were invited to tour a moth garden?

''It's not the conventional way to garden, so I don't know many people who do,'' says Janet Marinelli, director of publications for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. ''Other than me, of course.''

Marinelli is an equal opportunity Lepidoptera gardener. She plants flowers for both butterflies and moths. But while butterflies are attracted primarily to colors, moths respond more strongly to fragrances.

''Basically, there are some general rules about such things as moth gardens,'' Marinelli says. ''Most moths fly at night so luminous light (colored) or luminous green flowers attract them. Also flowers with a great scent. People doing studies have discovered moths cover an amazing distance following odors.''

More than 900 yards, actually.

If you want adult moths frequenting your yard, then you might try cultivating plants considered appetizing by their offspring so-called larvae plants.

''Giant silk moths don't eat at all as adults,'' Marinelli says. ''They just live to mate. The larval stage is usually where they do the (leaf) cutting.

''The same with butterflies: The adults just go around looking beautiful. Caterpillars do all the munching.''

Despite the garden good they can do, moths are not without their critics. Need I mention the liberal use of mothballs by the world's wool sock collective? Still, Snyder believes much of that criticism is undeserved.

''For all their great numbers, moths turn out very, very few pests,'' he says. ''Only a few hundred (species) concern the agricultural entomologists in that they'll attack crops.

''The vast majority eat only what we call weeds. Virtually every species of plant will attract moths or their larvae.''

Most gardeners seem to favor attracting sphinx or hawk moths, the giant silkworm or royal moths or the tiger moth varieties.

Sphinx moths (Family Sphingidae) grow medium to large with elongated forewings. Their bodies tend to be thick and they usually have a long proboscis what biologists call ''a drinking straw kind of tongue'' enabling them to draw nectar from deep-throated flowers.

An example includes the hummingbird clearwing moth which, because of its size, darting flight patterns and ability to hover, often is mistaken for its namesake bird.

Silkworm moths (Family Saturniidae) also run medium to large, have prominent antennae and thick bodies covered with hairlike scales, Snyder says. Luna, Polyphemus and Chinati sheepmoths are among the silkworm color guard.

Tiger moths (Family Arctiidae) are frequently bright in color, with distinctive markings on their wings and body.

The Black-edged Prominent and Great Tiger moth are noteworthy members of this family. Flowers favored by moths include four o'clocks (Mirabilis Jalapa), blazing stars (Mentzelia lindleyi), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata), night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum) and narrowleaf evening primrose (Oenothera fruticosa). All are fragrant and all are nocturnal bloomers.

Certain plants have proven to attract both butterflies and moths, notably lilacs, viburnum, phlox, vincas, petunias, blackberry and thistles.

''As long as they're open day and night and contain nectar,'' Marinelli says.

On the Net:

For more about butterflies, moths and moth gardens, click on this Furman-maintained Web site: http://alpha.furman.edu/(tilde)snyder/snyder/lep/internet.html

For more about the moths of North America, see the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/mothsusa.htm



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