Night work: Moths pollinate plants under cover of darkness

Moths play a crucial but little appreciated role in pollinating crops, flowers and trees in urban areas, accounting for up to a third of all pollination, new research from the University of Sheffield shows.

The United Kingdom-based study published in Ecology Letters shows moths carry more pollen than previously thought, visiting significantly different plant communities to bees.

Dr Stuart Campbell from the University of Sheffield and co-author of the study, says researchers used DNA sequencing to identify the pollens stuck to night-flying moths when visiting flowers.

“We found that moths are probably pollinating a range of plant species, many of them wild, that are unlikely to be pollinated by bees – and vice versa,” he says. 

Moths are known to frequent pale and fragrant flower species, but the study also shows moths visit a range of tree and fruit crops.

Lead author, Dr Emilie Ellis previously from the University of Sheffield, now based at the University of Helsinki says, “as moths and bees both rely on plants for survival, plant populations also rely on insects for pollination”.

Ellis says the research demonstrates the crucial role of moths in pollinating plants, including crops.

“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,” she says.

While bees are best known for their role supporting plant communities, many species including moths, birds, bats and small mammals all play a role pollinating plants.

The University of Sheffield study has implications for wildlife-friendly gardening initiatives, urban planners and policy makers responsible for developing urban green spaces for parks or urban horticulture.

“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,” Ellis says.

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