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Moths found to be critically important pollinators 

Moths play a more important role in supporting crop yields than what was previously known, according to a new study from University College London

The research suggests that moths are important nighttime pollinators with networks that are larger and more complex than daytime pollinators.

The experts found that moths transport pollen from many of the same plants as bees, butterflies, and hoverflies, yet also interact with plants that are not commonly visited by daytime pollinators.

The study revealed that pollen is usually carried on the moth’s ventral thorax, or chest, rather than on the proboscis. This allows for easier pollen transfer.

“Nocturnal moths have an important but overlooked ecological role. They complement the work of daytime pollinators, helping to keep plant populations diverse and abundant,” explained study lead author Dr. Richard Walton.

“They also provide natural biodiversity back-up, and without them many more plant species and animals, such as birds and bats that rely on them for food, would be at risk.”

“Previous studies of pollen transport among settling moths have focused on their proboscis. However, settling moths sit on the flower while feeding, with their often distinctly hairy bodies touching the flower’s reproductive organs. This happy accident helps pollen to be easily transported during subsequent flower visits.”

The breakthrough research comes at a time when moth populations are declining across the globe. 

“In recent decades, there has been a lot of science focus on solitary and social bees driven by concerns about their dramatic decline and the strong negative effect this has had on insect-pollinated crop yields,” said Dr. Jan Axmacher. “In contrast, nocturnal settling moths – which have many more species than bees – have been neglected by pollination research.”

“Our study highlights an urgent need for them to be included in future agricultural management and conservation strategies to help stem declines, and for more research to understand their unique and vital role as pollinators, including their currently unknown role in crop pollination.”

The study was focused on agricultural fields in eastern England during the growing seasons of 2016 and 2017. Moth communities and daytime pollinators were monitored once a month.

Of the 838 moths examined for the study, 381 were found to transport pollen. The team found traces of pollen from 47 different plant species, including at least seven that were rarely visited by daytime pollinators. 

Overall, 57 percent of the pollen transported was found on the ventral thorax of the moths.

“While bumblebees and honeybees are known to be super pollinators they also preferentially target the most prolific nectar and pollen sources,” said Dr. Walton.

“Moths may appear to be less effective pollinators by comparison, but their high diversity and abundance may make them critical to pollination in ways that we still need to understand.” 

“Our research sheds light on a little known world of nocturnal plant-insect interactions that might be vital to the look and smell of our precious countryside and to the crops that we grow.”

The study is published in the journal Biology Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff


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