Moth not to the flame, but to our hearts

We would go away richer with the knowledge of moth diversity around us, and they would flap away as soon as we switched off the light.
Image used for representational purposes only. (Wikimedia Commons)
Image used for representational purposes only. (Wikimedia Commons)

Between trees dripping with rain, a white sheet hung, burnished by the light of a single mercury bulb. We were gazing longingly at this sheet, hoping insects would feel the same stirrings of longing and descend on it. “Moth to the flame” is a fatalistic proverb, describing the lack of free will. 

It suggests that when there is a flame emitting light, a moth will fly, flickeringly but surely, towards the flame, and will inevitably burn itself to death. It seems a sad kind of way to describe this member of Lepidoptera—less flamboyant than butterflies, less noticed, less talked about, but not lesser in any real way.
It was the last few days of July and we were waiting in a city forest for moths to come to our ‘light trap’: between spells of monsoon rainfall, they would be attracted by the strong light of the bulb, and would sit on the sheet. There would be no dying, no immolation.

We would go away richer with the knowledge of moth diversity around us, and they would flap away as soon as we switched off the light. The last week of July is celebrated as national moth week, wherein citizens make attempts to estimate moth diversity. 

That day in the forest, we watched a fruit-piercing moth flutter around us—its large body and bold markings shining in the yellow light. A cicada, as quiet in the night as it is loud in the day, placed itself next to the moth. Crickets, roaches and damselflies—like a delicate version of dragonfly—came too. Moths we couldn’t yet name appeared too, in their calm way. They looked like woollier versions of butterflies. 

It’s likely you have always seen moths, and even more likely that they haven’t registered with you. Moths seem to take up no place at all, sitting quietly and stoically on a window sill, or the top corner of three walls, or on a curtain, looking like a hand-block print. Some moths fly during the day, but most are active at night. Some have no mouths—they are born just to further their progeny. Some are fruit and crop pests. But hundreds of kinds of moths are around us, filling the night sky with their silent beauty. 

We tend to notice brightly coloured, loud things because they naturally attract our attention. We may not know the state bird of Chhattisgarh (it’s the Hill Myna), but we have all seen videos of jewel-like Indonesian birds of paradise dancing for their mates. To notice something that’s quieter, like a moth, is to make a little more effort.

That night, we realised the moths we knew were outnumbered by those we didn’t. The moths we expected didn’t come, but new ones took their place. I remembered my favourite, the Cyanapuella, which is off-white with a chic red-wave and black-spot pattern. We may have about 1,500 species of butterflies in India, but moth species are at an estimated 10,000.

Simply put, moths are waiting to be noticed and cherished. The climate crisis makes me worry for soft-bodied animals like moths, who seem too delicate to be real. I wonder if we are witnessing their collapse in our surroundings without even noticing it. For citizens, this can be remedied by paying attention; for scientists, more funding needs to be made available for studying these under-appreciated species.
Meanwhile, we can start by noticing moths a little more; let’s change ‘moth to the flame’ to ‘moth to our hearts’.  

Neha Sinha

Conservation biologist and author

Twitter: @nehaa_sinha

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