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Wildfires negatively impact nighttime moth pollination

Pollinators like bees and butterflies often get the spotlight in terms of research and media attention, and this could be because many buzzing and flitting pollinating pros go about their business during the day. After all, a colorful monarch flying around a flower garden on a sunny day is hard to miss. 

However, a new study has found that wildfires have a negative impact on key night-time pollinators: moths. 

The study was conducted by an international team of experts who investigated the impacts of a wildfire in Portugal on the relationship between moths and flowers. 

Past research has shown that bees and butterflies can benefit from the surge of wildflowers that burst from the ground after a fire. But it turns out that night-time pollinators are not as lucky in the aftermath of a fire. 

“Day-time pollinators, such as bees, have previously been shown to respond positively to the post-fire increase in resources of pollen and nectar, but it was not known whether night-flying pollinators, such as moths, benefit in the same way,” said Dr. Callum Macgregor, the lead author of the study. 

70 percent of moths caught by the researchers in Portugal were carrying pollen, and in the spring that number jumped to over 95 percent. In the area studied, moths were carrying the pollen of over 80 percent of the flowering plant species. 

After the fire, pollen carrying declined. The amount of pollen carried by moths at the burned sites was five times lower. 

There were also fewer species of moths at these sites and lower moth numbers in burned areas compared to areas that were not impacted by the fire. 

“By comparing sites within the burned area to unburned sites nearby, we found that after the fire, flowers were more abundant and represented more species, which was mainly due to increases of flowers in winter and spring,” said Macgregor. “By contrast, we found that moths were much less abundant and less species rich after the fire, across all seasons. 

Moths could be a much more important pollinator than previously realized, and without both day-time and night-time pollinators, an area may not be able to recover as efficiently after a major event like a fire.

This study, published in the journal Functional Ecology, puts a spotlight on moths and emphasizes their important role in the ecosystem. 

“Given the increasing frequency of devastating wildfires we are witnessing in places such as Portugal, the United States and even British moorlands, this is a cause for concern as ecosystems may be becoming less resilient and unable to return to a functioning state,” said Dr. Darren Evans, a co-supervisor of the study. 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

Image Credit: Paula Banza

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