Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Case You Have Been Wondering about All the Moths . . .

Editor's note: This was posted last year (12/07/08), but it looks like it's about that time of year again. Dorothy Boorse, associate professor of biology, wrote:

“Leaving campus in the dark of early evening, I have been bombarded by clouds of fluttering moths at the glass entrance to the building. They lie in the wet of the sidewalk, bang against my face, tap on my hands as I flick them away. You have seen them too, I know, because I hear the tidbits of lunchroom speculations, references to the Hitchcock movie The Birds. Will they take over? Will Hitchcock’s legacy live on in some dreadful horror flick in which Gordon staff and faculty are battered to death by moths? Moths in the eyes (ta dum ta dum); the mouth (the horror!!)? Dan Tymann running screaming into the building, beating back the flurry of powdered wings; Greg Carmer found frozen in terror, covered by moths, almost to his car at the Chapel Lot. . . .
“Possibly. I can’t really speak to that. But in case you wondered, they are males of the wintermoth, a newly introduced European species that has taken over the Thanksgiving and Advent periods in eastern Massachusetts for the past several years. The larvae are those light green inchworms that so devastate your crabapple and oak trees in the spring, leaving only skeleton veins of those first juicy leaves. The house sparrows love them.
“But only males? Yup. The females are flightless. If you look closely at walls and doors, you will see what look like mutant moths, with small, unusable wing buds. They are supposed to be like that. They sit there and send out chemicals more powerful than the best Christmas present perfume, calling to the males, ‘Come find me,’ and apparently it works, except for all the males lost trying to get to the lights through the glass doors on campus, or feebly beating in the puddles I pass.
“Winter moths are similar to the native fall cankerworm. They come out at the same time and also have flightless females. But cankerworms don’t build up the huge numbers we have been seeing the last two weeks. These are almost certainly the European winter moth. So if you have been wondering, there you have it. If you haven’t been wondering, get out and notice while they are still around!”
More information is available through UMASS extension.
Enjoying the natural world, even the creepy bits,
Dorothy Boorse

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