Fear of Moths: Ridiculous or Reasonable?

Alright, confession time: one of my best friends is scared of moths. I know, it was a shock for me too. I found this out about two and a half years ago when I sent this friend (let’s call her Sarah because that is her name) pictures of a poplar hawk moth I’d caught. In hindsight, maybe I should have checked first.

Like all phobias, it can be really difficult for those of us without it to understand what the problem is so I asked Sarah exactly what she doesn’t like:

“I don’t like them cause they freak me out irl when they fly in my face and they’re fuzzy and look like death and just looking at them gives me shivers

That any good for your blog?”

Although we often refer to it as lepidopterophobia (the irrational fear of all Lepidoptera), its true form is actually very rare. Many people are terrified of moths but have no problem at all with butterflies, leading to mottephobia (the irrational fear of moths) being increasingly common.

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The picture that started it all.

 

Specific phobias” are an intense and persistent fear of a certain object or situation, most of which are thought to develop in childhood as a result of a traumatic experiences and/or genetic predisposition, and usually go away by adulthood. In the case of a lot of common fears, such as arachnophobia or cynophobia (fear of spiders and dogs, respectively), it is thought that they might be an evolutionary adaptation to things which were once dangerous for us, even if they aren’t any more. Both of these factors make sense for fears of things which can hurt you, bees and wasps for example, but what possible harm can moths do?

According to some sources, it seems Sarah is not alone, the fear is mostly linked to movement. Some find the unpredictable fluttering flight patterns unsettling, feeling uncomfortable when a butterfly or moth flies near them in case it lands on them or brushes against their skin. These fears are multiplied when the insects are swarming in groups, something which must make lepdiopterophobes who live in monarch butterfly migratory “highways” somewhat uncomfortable. At the end of the day, it seems to be the unpredictability which is especially fear-provoking, which ties in with the fear of the unknown. This still doesn’t answer why more people are scared of moths than butterflies and it doesn’t seem that clear. My best guess is that is has something to do with the fact that we mostly encounter moths by night as they try to get into our houses – a distinctly creepy scenario.

Although it is important to be understanding of people with true mottephobia, there is a greater issue here: that of irrational disgust and dislike of interests, without the excusable irrational fear and panic of a phobia. A third of fear of British animals in UK adults was of “fear-relevant animals” (snakes etc.) and invertebrates. Not of fear relevant invertebrates like wasps and bees, or even disease relevant invertebrates like mosquitos and cockroaches, just “invertebrates”. The paper even lists slugs and worms as given examples of feared invertebrates, suggesting that the disgust the great British public feels about “creepy crawlies” is entirely without logical reason.

To a certain extent it can be argued that fears develop because of a lack of exposure: students from urban areas on field trips to wildland areas were recorded as frequently expressing a fear and disgust of insects, as well as snakes, plants, and “getting lost”. Fear of the unknown is considered by some researchers to be “the fundamental fear”; what you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you. To link this back to mottephobia, if the only exposure you have to moths is them flapping in your face on summer evenings, I can see why it would be annoying, even distressing and how that could develop into a fully blown phobia.

flesh moth.jpg

Even by the BBC’s standards this was a weird one

The idea for this article was sparked by an episode of Doctor Who back in November where the Doctor and her companions ended up in an anti-zone between universes infested with flesh moths: enormous carnivorous moths which are attracted to light and movement and could strip the flesh from prey in moments. Look, don’t ask me, ask the BBC.In order to reduce and remove specific phobias, exposure therapy is used to gradually reduce the amount of fear associated with a trigger.  But how are people supposed to ‘grow out’ of their childhood fears if the media constantly feeds us negative images of insects?

Now whilst some moths do, as Sarah said, “look like death” (I’m looking at

death's head hawk moth.jpg

Acheronita atropos, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth with its distinctive skull-shaped marking

you, Death’s Head Hawk Moth), there are many more which are beautiful and play incredibly important roles in their ecosystems – one of the best well known being the obligate mutualism between yuccas and yucca moths. Maybe the fact we never see these moths represented in the media but are regularly exposed to butterflies in a positive context also contributes to the difference in attitudes.

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The truly beautiful, and somewhat butterfly-like, atlas moth (Attacus atlas) defies all preconceptions about moths’ small and dowdy nature.

 

Sometimes we have a tendency, as people who know about and spend time with insects, to find the level of disgust the British public feel towards invertebrates frustrating. That’s fair enough, but what scares people, scares them, and there’s nothing we can do except try to support those with true phobias and educate those who just don’t understand.

And whatever you do, don’t send mottephobes pictures of hawk moths!

 

 

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On Insect cocks

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Cock. Penis. Dick. Wang. Whatever you call the male appendage, this is an area of insect physiology where things get pretty wild. Or perhaps more accurately, wilder than the usual.

But let’s start scientifically-correct: in the insect world the closest thing to the human penis is more properly known as the aedeagus. But ‘closest thing’ does not in any way imply great similarity. It’s actually part of the insect abdomen, and the external part of the male’s sexual weaponry is a phallus of extremely various flaps, hairs and hooks. Still with this? Good.

When it comes to shape, describing the situation as complex doesn’t get anywhere near to doing it justice. Menno Schilthuizen’s account of genital evolution is a comprehensive overview (far more so than can be included here), highlighting a wonderfully alien world of ‘prongs’, ‘pegs’, ‘springs’ and ‘titillators’. If insects are purely in it for the passing of genes, they could’ve fooled us.

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Amazing aphid dicks: from Wieczorek et al, 2011 

There’s so much to say about the morphology of aphid appendages alone that the main journal paper on the matter comes in two parts. For relatively small insects, aphids come with a significant package – “relatively large and discernible under a hand lens or even with the naked eye”. The paper includes such descriptive gems as “a few circular pits distributed mostly in its medial part. Sclerotized arms with distal part rather long and thin, and proximal part shorter and wider. Aedeagus long, inverted question mark-shaped.” And that’s just the aphid Drepanosiphumplatanoidis. Big name, big aedeagus.

Smutty jokes aside (but not for long), in insect taxonomy, male sexual organs can be extremely helpful in establishing exactly what species you’re dealing with. In fact, it can often be the only way of making a certain identification. So far, so useful, to us as well as them. But how do insects actually, you know, do it? Again, this is no simple matter.

dragonfly dicks - miller 1991

Normal for dragonflies: from Miller, 1991

The ‘lock and key hypothesis’ is an idea that has persisted in entomology – and, naturally,
argued over. It asserts that male and female sexual organs of an insect species, whatever wacky shape and size they are, have evolved to only be the exact ‘fit’ for each other. The theory, however, has been largely discredited over the years.

What’s abundantly clear is that sex is rarely anything straightforward in the insect world – there’s little by way of proxy for missionary. Dragonflies are a good go-to example for the messiness of it all – so much so that their sexual antics inspired a New York Times article, in which the slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta) is described as having a “fairly rococo penis”. Sex begins with what constitutes foreplay – the male grabbing the female at the back of the head – while dragonfly dongs are not just about depositing sperm, they’re also about removing that of rivals. Naturally, females are tooled up to stop that happening, if at all possible.

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Brutal bruchid beetle bell-end: Wikimedia Commons

The mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) also has a dick geared up to dispatch the genes of its rivals. In the words of this paper on the matter, it “comprises a central shaft enclosed within a flexible sheath covered with chitinous spines. As the shaft extends within the female’s copulatory bursa the sheath and its covering of spines rolls back producing a `scouring’ effect.” Lovely.

With schlongs often more resembling torture implements, things can get even more brutal. Males of the bruchid beetle (Callosobruchus maculatus) actually damage the female’s reproductive tract during sex, and females, understandably, kick them for it. If she doesn’t kick, injuries tend to be worse after a longer sex session. Yet according to this paper, the carnage is not a deliberate act of destruction by the males, just an unfortunate by-product of them evolving weapons that are literally weapons. Why, it’s not yet known, but the theory is its all about being able to cling tightly to their ‘loved’ one.

If this blog puts insects in danger of being adopted by the alt-right as beacons of ultra- masculinity, hold that thought right there. Transgression of gender norms is happening in Brazilian caves, don’t you know. In the louse genus Neotrogla, it’s the females with the penis-like protrusion, and the guys with a chamber comparable to a vagina. A very niche re-definition of ‘wearing the trousers’ for sure, and in marked contrast to the species of beetles and dragonflies using their phallus to screw over their rivals with a bit of sperm scooping, our ‘macho’ cave-based females are using theirs to collect it up. Through all the kink and horror, life finds a way.

So there, a piece about insect nobs has been published on the Entomology MSc blog. I can only hope this comes up in the exams in March, making things a little less hard. Too much smut? Probably.