We all know that pollination is an invaluable process, critical for both the maintenance of ecosystems and continued agricultural production. With growing pressure on agriculture to sustain the inflating human population, the role of pollinators is becoming increasingly important. In spite of global declines across many pollinating insect species, the conservation discussion tends to focus on day-time pollinators, in particular the plight of bees. However, recent research from the University of York has demonstrated that the night-time activities of moths may play a much greater role in pollination that we had previously thought.
Due to the technical challenges of observing nocturnal animals, moths are relatively understudied compared to day-time pollinator species. In the University of York study, researchers genetically analysed pollen found on moths to characterise previously unstudied plant-moth interactions and identify pollen-transport networks within a UK agrosystem. In so doing they identified many plants that were not previously thought to be pollinated by moths and found that moths pollinate a number of important agricultural crops. These include potato, soya bean and oil-seed rape. Many moth-pollinated plant species are also known to be pollinated by day-time insects. This may confer a selective advantage for these plant species if current pollinator declines continue.
Moth pollinators tend to travel greater distances whilst foraging compared to their day-time counterparts. Consequentially, they may facilitate plant-geneflow across a landscape and prevent the deleterious effects of inbreeding. The maintenance of genetic diversity through geneflow has important implications for a species evolution and may improve survival under future perturbations in the environment – of particular note, climate change.
The contribution of moths to pollination services has previously been understudied. However, using genetic analyses this study has identified them as globally relevant pollinators. Consequentially, their conservation is of great importance, especially in the face of ongoing global declines in the numbers of pollinating insects. The total number of moths in the UK is estimated to have decreased by around 30% since 1968, this has partly been attributed to habitat losses, light pollution and use of pesticides. The Univeristy of York study goes some way to prove that when discussing important pollinators for the maintenance of agricultural production, we should include moths, and therefore take action to prevent their further decline.