Moths Matter!

When we talk about insect pollination, bees and butterflies are often what come to mind first. Butterflies come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns. Bees dance and communicate and make honey. But don’t forget about moths.

Moths are unappreciated and overlooked. Some people are even disgusted by them. Yet they play an essential role in their ecosystems and their presence indicates that ecosystem is healthy. For a little context, moths are closely related to butterflies. They undergo a similar metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar to winged insect. While there are 800 species of butterflies in North America, there are more than 12,000 species of moths. And they too come in a variety of colors and sizes. Sometimes they are so brilliant they are confused with butterflies.

But looks aren’t really what matters. What does matter is that moths are important pollinators (in addition to being an important food source for other animals). In fact, one study revealed that nocturnal moths (and, for the record, not all moths are nocturnal) visit a greater variety of flower species than bees do. Other studies have determined that the role moths play in pollination is just as important as that of bees, if not more important. Not only that, many moth species can cover greater distances than bees, thus transporting pollen further.

As I said, moths are often confused with butterflies. If you want to learn to tell the difference, read this post. Either way, appreciate them equally!

Wildflowers – Mountain Edition

Every year I can’t wait for the snow to melt in the high country in the spring so I can hike, preferably to a high alpine lake. The season is so short, but I try to take advantage. It’s fuel for the soul. I never cease to be amazed at color and complexity of the alpine wildflowers, too, that are so well-adapted to their harsh environment.

Stemless four-nerve-daisyStemless Four-Nerve-Daisy – This is a brilliant flower with an unfortunate name. Nonetheless, it grows in clumps, low to the ground at very high altitudes (this photo was taken at 12,000’). They always face east.


fairy slipper, Calypso orchid

Fairy slipper – The more scientific name for this flower is Calypso orchid, but a closer look will reveal why it has it’s nickname. I don’t see these often, but it’s always a treat.



Jacob's ladderJacob’s Ladder – This “cute” flower grows in bunches and is part of the phlox family. The ladder reference in the name comes from the leaves which are divided into smaller leaflets and resemble a ladder.


globeflowerGlobeflower – These hardy flowers are some of the first to bloom in the alpine spring (which is actually late June) and are often found growing in places where snow has recently retreated. They are a welcome sign of the new season.


Glacier lily, alpine lily

Glacier Lily – These flowers are also early bloomers, growing on forest edges and meadows with lots of moisture (such as melting snow). I learned that their bulbs and green seed pods are great food sources for elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and bears. Rodents including ground squirrels dig up the bulbs to store as a winter food source.

Shooting starShooting Star – This is another flower I don’t see often, but on this hike there was a small hillside covered in them. These flowers are “buzz-pollinated” (new term!) by bumblebees. The bees grasp the flower’s anthers and buzz their wings, causing a vibration and a shower of pollen.

The Wonder of Moss

Until recently I hadn’t thought much about moss. I’d pass by it in the yard, on the side of a tree, or even in a crack on a sidewalk without a second glance. But then I met someone who made me take a closer look.

Moss is a very hardy, flowerless plant that grows in every kind of habitats from damp caves to dry deserts on every continent (including Antarctica). They can survive extreme temperatures, both very hot and very cold.  And while moss needs water to thrive, they can also live without water. They can completely dry out, some for decades, and wait for rain. When precipitation returns, the moss will soak in the moisture and start growing again.

Moss does not have roots, but instead have hairlike anchors called rhizoids that anchor them in place. Some mosses use the rhizoids to draw moisture and minerals, while others use their absorbent surfaces to collect what they need.

What I find most interesting about moss is if you do take that closer look. A patch of moss is actually a teeny-tiny forest. It consists of tiny, individual moss plants packed tightly together to hold onto moisture. And instead of seeds to reproduce, moss produces spores in small capsules on a stalk that rise above the rest of the plant. When the capsule breaks open, the spores are blown far and wide by the wind or carried off by animals, hopefully landing somewhere suitable to grow into a whole new plant. Next time you pass a patch of moss, take that second glance!

The Royal Order of the Fluffle

At our house we log a lot of hours watching the rabbits in the yard. This time of year there are always more, and this year we’re having a bunny boom (side note: rabbits can have five or more litters in a year!). Of course the babies are especially adorable.

Rabbits are generally solitary, except, of course, when they get together to make more rabbits. Even the young are weaned at about four weeks and are kicked out on their own. But we do see two of them facing off sometimes, crouched low with their ears back. Then they chase each other in circles and again stopping in a face off. This often leads to one or the other of them jumping 2-3 feet straight into the air or over the other. It’s hilarious to watch. Apparently if it’s a male and female, this is called cavorting. Ha! If they decide they are interested in each other, they will mate. Other times this behavior is to establish dominance. Rarely do the rabbits ever just hang out.

Yet one evening one came out of the meadow onto the lawn. Then two more. Then others. At one point there were seven adult rabbits roughly in a circle facing one another, but not cavorting. We couldn’t help but wonder what they might be talking about. Or what a group of rabbits is called. The answer? A group of rabbits is called a fluffle!

Yellow-Breasted Chat

On a recent hike I heard an unfamiliar bird. Thanks to my Merlin Bird ID app that allows you to identify birds by sight or sound, I learned that bird serenading me was a yellow-breasted chat. I never even knew such a bird existed.

Yellow-breasted chat

Photo credit tcantrell52

I looked and looked and looked for the yellow-breasted serenader and never did see it. I later learned that’s typical because they like to hang out in thickets where they hunt for berries and insects (which is where the songs were coming from). Despite not seeing the bird, I was content to listen to, as Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology puts it, the stream “of whistles, cackles, chuckles, and gurgles with the fluidity of improvisational jazz.” Interestingly these birds are not seen or heard much at all after the spring breeding season (note the aforementioned love of thickets). And in the fall they will return to Central America. Smart birds.

The chat was part of the warbler family for a long time. Yet these birds are larger and stockier than warblers. Their songs and calls are also much more varied than those of warblers. There are other differences, too, which is why they finally got their own family (Icteriidae) in the late 2010s. We are still learning about the natural world!