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  1. Life & Culture

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Bring on the moths

I'll bet you've got at least one patch of bright yellow, red and pink bloomers "for the butterflies." Me, too. Their joyful aerobatics animate our daytime landscapes like the magical paintings in Harry Potter books.

But show us a moth — or moth caterpillar — and we shudder and squish.

Never mind moths are pretty much just nocturnal butterflies. And that sometimes, the only way us non-scientists can tell them apart is to watch how they hold their wings when they rest (butterflies fold up; moths stretch out).

I admit, I've dropped many an oleander caterpillar into the Soap Jar of Death, oblivious to the fact those voracious larvae would morph into cheery polka dot wasp moths. And all those greedy hornworms I plucked from my tomato plants and gave away as fish bait? Super cool future sphinx and hummingbird moths, says Kenny Coogan.

"Those are moths you pay attention to because they're so big, they look like small birds. And they hover. Any animal that can hover, well, that's a pretty amazing adaptation," says Kenny, a suburban Tampa homesteader and middle school science teacher with a degree in animal behavior. (He also writes garden and animal columns for numerous magazines — find him on Facebook at Critter Companions, where he goes by Kenny James.)

Kenny gets excited about these maligned nocturnal, diurnal (daytime) and crepuscular (dusk and dawn) pollinators, and he's not alone.

"There are a lot of moths that are just as beautiful as the more popular butterflies. They have intricate patterns and some even have vibrant colors," says Doreen Damm who, with husband Bob, gardens for wildlife in their New Port Richey subdivision. "They are the night shift of pollinators so not as many people get the chance to see them.

"We purposely installed Malibu lights, which attract the insects of the night, including a lot of moths."

During the fifth annual National Moth Week in July, lepidoperists worldwide created 456 registered events that drew aficianados like, well, moths to a flame.

Why do so many gardeners love their moths? Kenny shares:

• They can be beautiful, like the polka dot wasp moth and bella moth — Florida's two prettiest, in his opinion. Other varieties will make your jaw drop. Like the polyphemus moth, named for the big fake eyes on its wings. A flash of those glaring peepers can scare away predators.

• Creating a sustainable ecosystem in your yard means less work, and more entertainment, for you. Moths attract predators including birds and frogs, and pollinate night-blooming plants, among other good works.

• In Florida, gardening after sundown makes sense during our hot weather months. Not only does Kenny escape the blazing sun, he gets to witness the nightlife beyond his back door, including gliding squirrels, screech owls, moonflowers and night-blooming jasmine. All of which rely on — you guessed it! — moths.

Attract them to your yard and create a 24/7 self-sustaining garden, by planting what they love. Kenny suggests 4 o'clocks, Datura (beautiful but be warned — all parts are poisonous if eaten), trumpet vine, Dracena, sweet potato vine, elephant's foot, mother-in-law's tongue (when in bloom), and — yes — tomatoes.

"I have a neighbor who will sacrifice a whole tomato plant for the hornworms," he says.

A few moth fun facts:

• You'll see colorful moths during the day, or at dawn and dusk. Night-shift moths tend to be brown or gray so they won't be conspicuous when they snuggle up to a tree trunk to sleep during the day.

• Butterfly caterpillars form a chrysallis before the big change; moths form a cocoon.

• Moths and butterflies share membership in Lepidoptera, an order that also includes skippers.

I'll never embrace all moths — I have no love varieties that move into my pantry and linen and clothes closets. But that's no reason to hate on the good guys! As with the rest of us, they just need to be understood.

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.

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