Where are a million tiny Godzillas when you need them?
That’s what some New Mexicans may be wondering as crowds of moths descend on cities and mountain towns. Professionals say we should welcome them with open arms.
After all, this is business as usual for the army cutworm moth, commonly called the “miller moth.”
Senior Collection Manager David Lightfoot, with the Division of Arthropods at the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico, said business just happens to be booming this year — thanks to favorable conditions from last year: a wet summer followed by mild winter.
“Basically, what’s going on always happens, it’s just that we’re seeing way more of them now. So we’re more aware of their presence,” he said, adding that Wyoming and Colorado are seeing the same migrations.
Lightfoot said, historically, the large moth migrations occur every five to 10 years. That is expected to change in the future.
“With climate change, with global warming, that pattern is being disrupted and it may be more frequent or less frequent,” he said.
The year-long life cycle starts on the eastern plains of New Mexico, West Texas and Oklahoma. It’s there that the moths start as caterpillars and thrive on alfalfa fields.
They become moths by March and travel to higher elevations, like Albuquerque, for the wildflowers. Lightfoot said in a few weeks the moths will return to the plains where they mate, breed and die.
He said there’s no reason to fear the fluttering tourists “on their way to the mountains for the summer.” Lightfoot said they can’t bite and are totally harmless.
They have a long tongue but it’s for the flowers. Lightfoot said they “hide out” to sleep during the day — often in places where people may startle them.
“That’s why we see a concentration of them around people’s homes and under cars, things like that. They’re just sleeping,” he said.
Lightfoot said the benefits of the moths far outweigh the annoyance they may cause for residents. He said they serve as pollinators and are also a food source for birds and other wildlife.
“Right now all the breeding birds in the Albuquerque are doing great with these moths to feed their chicks,” Lightfoot said. He said birds increase their egg-laying numbers in the same conditions that lead to the moth boom.
“They’re not responding directly to the increase in insects. They’re responding physiologically to the mechanism that causes the increase in insects,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing, really, how it all works.”
Lightfoot advised locals to see the good in the papery, frantic tourists.
“They will be gone in a few weeks, just tolerate them for now and think of the benefits of them feeding all the local wild birds,” he said.
Next up: grasshoppers.