Children

Night fairies

Most of us think moths are dull, unlike their cousins, the colourful butterflies. But the truth is quite the contrary. Moths like the luna and atlas are beautiful. Luna moths are pale pistachio green with silvery crescent-moon-like markings on their wings, ending in long twirling tails, much like a bridal train.

As for atlas moths, they have a wingspan of a whopping 28 - 30 cm and could be mistaken for birds. They are the largest moths in the world. Both the luna and atlas are found in India.

There are so many species of moths that many of them are yet to be discovered and studied. In fact, moths have been fluttering on our planet for 160 million years. They existed much before the dinosaurs came into being. Butterflies are believed to have evolved from moths.

Unlike their cousins

Like butterflies, moths too undergo a metamorphosis, passing through different stages in their lives — egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult or imago.

It may surprise you to know that many moths do not feed at all during their short adult stage — in fact, they don’t even have mouth parts.

How do moths differ from their evolved cousins, the butterflies? The most obvious difference is that with a few exceptions, butterflies are diurnal, active in the daytime while moths are nocturnal, flying about at night.

So, we call butterflies sun-worshippers and moths, moon worshippers. Butterflies bask in the early morning sun absorbing solar energy before taking off. How do moths get energy to fly at night? They vibrate their wings.

The caterpillars of some moths bristle with hair and woe betide anybody touching them — they can cause a nasty burning, itching sensation. Butterfly caterpillars may have harmless fleshy protrusions but never hairs. Have you ever seen moth caterpillars ‘looping’ instead of crawling? This is because they do not have all eight pairs of legs (three pairs of true legs and five pairs of false legs) like other caterpillars. They are very aptly called loopers or inch worms.

The next time you come across a moth, take a magnifying lens and check its antennae. They are broad and feathery, especially among the males, unlike the slender club-shaped ones of butterflies. The broad antennae serve as radars, picking up the pheromone scents of the females, so they know where to find them.

Moths pupate in cocoons. The cocoons may have a leathery skin or a silken covering. Butterflies do not encase themselves in cocoons to pupate.

Have you noticed that moths always rest with their wings stretched out? Butterflies prefer to rest with their wings folded.

Humans consider some species of night fairies as pests, because they eat up grain, woollen garments and even bore into plant stems. However, most moths are useful as they help pollinate the flowers that bloom at night. The Mulberry Silk Worm Moth created history. The Chinese devised a way of removing this moth’s delicate silken strands surrounding its cocoon and spinning them into silk cloth. At first, the making of silk was a closely guarded secret. People travelled for months through long dangerous routes to trade for this much coveted silk with other goods. That is how the silk route connecting China to Africa and Europe was set up.

Take a photograph of the night fairies and study it. If you happen to be in a hill station or any green, wooded area, you can set up a light trap. The results are best on new moon nights when the sky is dark enough. Shine a bright torch outside your cottage with a white sheet suspended below it. Set an alarm for midnight and check the sheet.

You will see a variety of moths on it. They were lured by the bright light. There may be other nocturnal insects too. After you have observed the moths, remember to switch off the light. You wouldn’t want lizards to feast on the hapless moths!


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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 10:58:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/night-fairies/article28281036.ece

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