The BioGeek Memoirs: Miller Moth

Last night a miller moth got into the house. The cats staked it out and Hannah kept trilling for me to come help her get it. The poor moth, trapped in my house in an environment that was definitely not safe, clung to the wall up near the ceiling.

These moths are small: about an inch across and they will leave a dusty powder behind if you touch them. This powder, reminiscent of the powder on people working in flour mills, is the source of the moth’s common name.

Later in the evening, after I had turned out lights in the house and was reading in bed, the moth, attracted by my reading light, arrived upstairs to bat and fly around my light. Chaos erupted as cats launched themselves towards the moth, and I grabbed the lamp. Mateo dove down the wall behind the bedside table, chasing the moth while Hannah tried to cut it off from the other side. Sigh. It was another long night…

This year there are an awful lot of moths on the move. Look at what showed up on my Facebook feed!

That’s right. As the cats and I know well, these moths are creatures of the night. I see them snacking on flowers that attract moths (lilacs, I’m talking to you!!) and bopping around lights during the night hours. Why these moths, creatures that hide from light all day, are attracted to sources of light at night, is a mystery to me, but there you are. There are several theories about why this happens, which you can read about here if you’d like.

Miller moths are annual visitors to my part of Colorado as they migrate westward towards the cooler foothills of the Rocky Mountains for the summer. In their caterpillar stage of life these moths existed as army cutworms, wreaking havoc on crops and grasses in fields on the Great Plains to the east. Once they emerge from their cocoons, the adults take to wing and head west in a great migration that lasts for weeks every May-June. Why are they doing this? There is a lot of speculation, but mostly it is thought that they are looking for better food and cooler conditions to survive the hot summer.

I try to keep a good attitude about the moths at this time of year. These moths are nocturnal and hunt for hiding places during the day where they are safe; too often they crawl into the cracks at the edges of the doors and windows and if you open one, the moth will take flight, end up in the house, and begin frantically searching for another hiding spot. Opening the garage door sets off a flurry of moths. I’m not going to lie; it can be really spooky when an unawares homeowner opens the front door to an erupting cloud of moths suddenly taking flight and batting against their face and hair. In my case it is worse because I have a storm door outside of my front door, and when I open the door, the moths have no place to fly except into my house. <Cue the cat excitement!!> How do those moths squeeze past the storm door to get inside the gap? They are experts at squeezing through tiny openings! Seriously, it has been so bad this year that this also showed up in my Facebook feed:

You are supposed to gently trap them and return them to the outside world where they belong. Here is the link to the article.

Can you hear Mateo wailing why??? He thinks that these moths are the best cat toys ever, and this is what Hannah looked like the first time she saw a moth on the wall:

Hannah: what is that??!

Well, the reason why they should go back outside is because they are important to the ecosystem. They are significant pollinators of flowers like the lilacs I mentioned above and other plants with strongly scented (and lightly colored) flowers. They are also important sources of food for birds like swallows; right now, there are furballs of swallows dipping and darting through some intersections and dodging cars as they snatch moths from the air. It is so bad it can be concerning when you approach the intersection; a swallow hit a car next to me while I was waiting at a light yesterday. Clearly, there are miller moths at these intersections and the birds are dive-bombing the cars as they hunt the moths. The reasons aren’t clear why the feeding is so good at some intersections, but as with all things miller moth, there you are. It must have to do with the lights, the lines between the poles, the swirling air, nearby fields, whatever. Just another magical phenomenon associated with the migration.

There is one last thing that I think of when the miller moths arrive. It is time for the kids to graduate! Year after year, graduation after graduation, I shook the hiding miller moths from my robes, carefully arranged my masters hood around my shoulders, and marched with my students as they left me and moved on with their lives.

The best migration ever!

Author: Midnight Knitter

I weave, knit and read in Aurora, Colorado where my garden lives. I have 2 sons, a knitting daughter-in-law, a grandson and two exceptionally spoiled kittens. In 2014 I was diagnosed with a serious rare autoimmune disease called systemic sclerosis along with Sjogren's Disease and fibromyalgia.

15 thoughts on “The BioGeek Memoirs: Miller Moth”

    1. They do look a little similar and they are both nocturnal migratory moths, and they both head to mountains for the summer. It looks like your moth has a much longer migration route and is endangered. Our moths seem to be still thriving. As a side note, today the news announced that the migration will go on longer than usual because the moths are being slowed down by wildfire smoke in the area. The cats are thrilled; me, not so much.

      1. I’ll never forget, when Chic was still alive, his pointing upwards towards the ceiling to show our Russian Blue where the moth was .. The Captain ran straight up him, arm and all, and ended perched on his wrist and hand !! He was, of course, still a kitten .. [grin]

      2. When Hannah was young, I would hold her up to the moth. Now she is much heavier, but she still trills and trills, asking me to hold her up to the ceiling so she can get the moth. Poor baby, that isn’t happening any more!

  1. They remind me of summer vacations as a kid. We stayed in various cabins around Allenspark, and the moths were often annoying. Mom just called them millers, and put dishes of soapy water under the table lamps to trap them. One got into the house the other night and thanks to my Rowdy, I now have some snagged curtains — the result of his trying to get to the moth above the floor lamp. The moth disappeared down the hall. That picture of Hannah made me laugh. Rowdy looked just like that when he spotted the moth. Smart moths — just like people, they leave the plains and head for the mountains when it gets warm.

    1. The first year Hannah saw moths she actually pulled the curtains down off the wall!! I love Allenspark. I used to go to the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park every May with my AP Bio students to study for their exam; luckily it was too soon for the moths.

      1. I was certain my curtains would come down with 11-12 pounds of cat hanging on them. They stayed up but are definitely the worse for wear.

        My freshman year at CU they took us to the Y Camp for the weekend (after dark, so I had no idea where we were). Bet they don’t do that anymore!

  2. This is the second post I have read about these moths in recent days – and very usefully informative. I like the origin of the name, and the touching nature of your last paragraph and closing line

    1. It’s such an event here there are nightly updates on how much longer it will go on. 🙂 There is a LOT of wildfire smoke here from fires in western Canada that is slowing them down, so the migration drags on…

  3. Ooft moths really make my skin crawl and I don’t know why, I’d be traumatised if I opened a door and got hit with a cloud of them. Yay for the swallows though, I suppose!

    1. I’m good with the moths… I used to wasps in the house and that was harder to deal with. There’s nothing like going to bed at night knowing that there are three more wasps loose… the swallows are so much fun to see at work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: