Saturday, November 17, 2018

I am an Arbiter of Lepidopteran Life and Death


The nights of a Seattle summer are cool, with the temperature almost always dropping down into the 60s. The cooler nights happen regardless of the high daily temperature; even as the high temperature day approaches or exceeds 90 degrees, it will drop 20 to 25 degrees during the night.

It is rare for homes in Seattle to have air conditioners. Historically, there just haven’t been enough days during the summer to warrant homeowners investing them (although it does seem to me that the recent summers have more and more days exceeding 85 degrees). Without air conditioning in our house, the summer ritual is after the sun sets to open the windows to let the cool night air into the house (augmented by, in some rooms, a window fan blowing air into the house from the outside).

Our house did not come with screens on the window, and until this year we had none. Which, of course, means that moths with their attraction to light would easily make their way into our house. Moths' attraction to artificial light (which the reasons why is still not clear), luring them into our homes, is not a good survival trait. A house is a death trap for a moth. Once a moth enters a house through an open window, it is unable to navigate the reverse journey, and the interior of house is is no place for a moth survive. There is no flower nectar for it to feed on (for those moths that feed; some species only eat as caterpillars and when after metamorphosis they are mouthless, only existing to find a mate to leave eggs for their next generation). A moth in a house is lost and confused, an unpleasant state to be in as its short life ends.

(An interlude of a memory returning as I write this: My junior year of college, I lived in a single dormitory room, with a multi-tube fluorescent light mounted to the ceiling right above my bed, and a large window with no screen. One night soon after I moved in, I went out, leaving the light on and window open. When I returned their were scores of moths hanging upside down on the light’s frosted white cover, stuck at the point they could no get no closer to the light. I had no choice but to sleep with the moths above me with the window open, with the hope that they would be lured out my room by the light of street lamps. That was the last time I left the room at night with the lights on and the window open.)

One morning I awoke and when I went to use the toilet, I noticed a moth with about an inch an half wingspan inside the toilet bowl, perched just above the water line. I could have just flushed the toilet and let it spiral down to its death in the sewer.

And although I have no hesitation about killing the small Indian meal moths (and their maggoty larvae) that occasionally invade our pantry, the moth in the toilet was not a pest and was just trying to find a dim place to rest during the day.

I lowered a piece of tissue down to it and with a slight touch of my finger coaxed it on to the tissue. I carried the moth and tissue to a nearby open window, gently shook the tissue, letting the moth fly off to the outdoors. I was now a moth savior.

A few days later, in the middle of the night, I heard our cat, Jay, in the bedroom, squeaking and pawing at something by the window. I returned to sleep, but in the morning on the floor was a crippled moth with tattered wings walking around in circles. Our cat is known for catching things, not killing them (do not ask me about the rats). The moth clearly wasn't going to survive long, and to put it quickly out if its misery (if that's even a state a moth can be in), I slid an open magazine under it, closed the magazine, then stomped on it, feeling its thick stubby body get crushed to goo between the pages.

One day a savior of moths. A few days later a killer of moths.

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