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Return of the Moths

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

They’re massing by the hundreds of thousands.

Untold hordes of army cutworm moths that have newly grown into adulthood have hit the city. And while they are nasty looking — one reader said she thought she was in a horror movie — their presence isn’t so much evil as it is weather-related.

They come every year, but this year there seems to be an explosion similar to the one last seen in 2003.

“Cutworms go through cycles,” said Joran Viers, county program director at the New Mexico State University Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension. “How often and how much that fluctuates, I’m not sure is known.”

As Viers said, there’s usually only one generation a year.

Every fall, adult moths lay their eggs in lower elevations, the caterpillars munch on whatever they can find until early spring, they go into a cocoon, emerge as adult moths a few weeks later and flock to cooler temperatures.

In Albuquerque, we’re catching them mid-flock, and they’ll be around for a few more weeks, Viers said. He said he started getting calls about the annoying insects last week.

They’re harmless, but try telling that to West Side resident Rachel Cappleman.

Cappleman, in an email message to the Journal on Monday, said she had a “hive” of moths outside her front door. “When my door closed, it spooked them and about 30 or so swarmed me,” she wrote.

When she was driving away, several fell off of her car. “An overall terrifying experience because I have never seen that many moths,” she wrote. “It was like a horror movie!”

Army cutworm moths, one of the many species called “miller moths” for the way they mill around light sources at homes, don’t eat clothing or fabric. In fact, adult army cutworm moths at this time of year pose little threat to anything.

“At this point, they’re at their least damaging and most noticeable,” Viers said.

While the caterpillars can be harmful to young plants and grass, that doesn’t become a concern until fall, when the moths lay their eggs.

It’s a different story at Apache Point Observatory outside of Las Cruces, where their squishy innards can cause problems. Just ask Howard Brewington, who works at the high-elevation observatory where the moths tend to flock.

When they land on a telescope, they can be squashed between parts. Their slippery guts cause the instrument to slide, Brewington said, and “it loses track of where it’s at and shuts off.”

Then Brewington and other observers have to wipe down the precise machinery, interrupting the flow of an operation that costs $5,000 an hour. “It’s just awful,” he said. “It makes a difficult job more difficult.”

Worse, the moths often hang out in the giant, bird-bath-like mirror that makes the telescope function. They leave behind their excretions, clouding the mirror and compromising the telescope until the observatory shuts down for the summer and the mirror can be cleaned.

“They’re having a big ol’ good time,” Brewington said, “pooping and flying and doing moth things. And our optics suffer.”

For the rest of us, there’s not much to do, Viers said. Insecticide only works on individual moths, so it’s ultimately futile to try to kill them. Just ignore them as much as possible, sweep up the dead ones and make sure to keep doors closed as much as possible, he said.

It’s a lesson for Steven Harris, who moved to his Northeast Heights home about a year ago and said he saw a “flock of moths” on the ground outside his window this weekend. Trying to open his windows in the evening, he said many flew inside.

“Maybe what we need are screens,” he said, laughing.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal



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