Study: Moths pollinate more efficiently than bees, but are less resilient to urbanization
When discussing pollinators, most minds jump to bumblebees and butterflies. According to two new studies released in the United Kingdom, conservationists may need to adjust focus to include a very important nighttime pollinator: moths.
June is National Pollinator Month in the United States! However, the importance of protecting pollinator species is a worldwide effort. While pollinators are mostly thought of in connection with flowering plants, European researchers are investigating their vital role in our natural ecosystems as a whole, as well as the parts pollinators play in the life cycles of a huge array of plant life, including many agricultural crops.
While the plight of daytime pollinators like bees and butterflies has been widely publicized and funded, scientists in the United Kingdom are finding the same resources lapse for their overnight counterparts, the moth— an “under-appreciated” species, who might be doing a bit more of the heavy lifting.
“Moths are important pollinators, and they are greatly under-appreciated and under-studied. The majority of pollination research tends to focus on day-flying insects, with little understanding of what happens at night,” said
Dr. Max Anderson, who was a Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex working alongside Professor Mathews at the time of the research, and who is now the South West Landscape Officer at The Butterfly Conservation. “Now we know that moths are also important pollinators, we need to take action to support them by encouraging some bramble and other flowering scrub plants to grow in our parks, gardens, road verges, and hedgerows.”
DRAWN LIKE A MOTH TO THE...FLOWERS
When studying 10 different locations around Southeast England, researchers at the University of Sussex compared the number of visits to flowers by bees and moths and the effectiveness of each species in pollination.
Researchers found that while daytime pollinators made 83 percent of all visits to bramble flowers—compared to the 15 percent of visits made by moths overnight—the moths were far more effective at pollination in those visits than the more “hardworking” bees.
“Bees are undoubtedly important, but our work has shown that moths pollinate flowers at a faster rate than day-flying insects,” explained Fiona Mathews, Professor of Environmental Biology at the University of Sussex and co-author of this latest research. “Sadly, many moths are in serious decline in Britain, affecting not just pollination but also food supplies for many other species ranging from bats to birds. Our work shows that simple steps, such as allowing patches of bramble to flower, can provide important food sources for moths, and we will be rewarded with a crop of blackberries. Everyone’s a winner!”
SCIENTISTS SAY: SAVE THE MOTHS, TOO!
While researchers at Sussex found that moths are not visiting flowers quite as much as bees, other researchers at the University of Sheffield believe that the daytime and nighttime insects might be visiting a different set of plants.
In the Sheffield study, Dr. Ellis and her co-authors showed that moths were found to be carrying more pollen than previously thought and visiting more types of tree and fruit crops than previously identified in addition to the usual, pale and fragrant flower species they are known to frequent.
These researchers also found despite moths accounting for a third of all pollination in flowering plants, crops, and trees, the diversity of plants they are pollinating is being significantly reduced due to the impacts of urbanization. However, conservation efforts are more highly focused on diversifying and protecting plant life vital to bees much more so than moths.
“People don’t generally appreciate moths so they can often be overlooked compared to bees when talking about protection and conservation, but it’s becoming apparent that there needs to be a much more focused effort to raise awareness of the important role moths play in establishing healthy environments, especially as we know moth populations have drastically declined over the past 50 years,” said Dr. Ellis.
Sussex reachers also suggested that making green spaces more moth-friendly needs to be a greater focus for conservationists because moths more complex life cycle than bees and are therefore more susceptible to the effects of urbanization and climate change.
“As moths and bees both rely on plants for survival, plant populations also rely on insects for pollination,” said Dr. Emilie Ellis, lead author from the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Institute for Sustainable Futures, and now the Research Centre for Ecological Change (REC) at the University of Helsinki. “Protecting urban green spaces and ensuring they are developed in such a way that moves beyond bee-only conservation but also supports a diverse array of wildlife, will ensure both bee and moth populations remain resilient and our towns and cities remain healthier, greener places.”
So, when it comes to conservation, supporting moths might just be the “bee’s knees!”
University of Sussex. “Moths are more efficient pollinators than bees, shows new research.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 March 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/03/230330102153.htm>.
University of Sheffield. “Saving moths may be just as important as saving the bees.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/06/230605181342.htm>.