People typically don't know a lot about moths, thinking that they are only evil creatures that eat holes in clothing. Moths and butterflies are grouped together in the Order Lepidoptera (scaly wings), which makes up about 7 percent of all life on Earth. Much discussion and debate on the taxonomic classification of butterflies and moths continues, with some butterfly families including species that are intermediate in form. An interesting exposition of the etymology of scientific names for moths uncovers some fascinating reasons for their nomenclature.
There is an appealing diversity of moths in size, shape, colors, wing spans (0.2–30 cm), and wing patterns. Some moths are pests—the brightly colored, poisonous day-flying moth, moths whose larvae devour fruit, and the clothes moth larvae that can digest keratin found in hair, wool, and skin. One group of moths, the silkworm moths, has been domesticated for the production of silk fibers.
Historical writings on moths go back more than 2300 years to Aristotle's Historia animalium, which includes several moth species. Through the centuries, other written works on insects (including moths) by notable scientists and naturalists including Malpighi, Swammerdam, Redi, Réaumur, and others demonstrate the international roots of our knowledge of these creatures. Accompanying the descriptions of these significant works are beautifully detailed illustrations from the works themselves.
The author includes detailed discussions of moth diversity, life cycles, physiology, and behavior. An interesting story involves French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabré's first observation of the effects of moth pheromones and wondering whether they had a hidden form of communication. Recently, there has developed a concern regarding a drop in moth diversity because of ecological threats from habitat destruction as a result of agriculture, tourism, climate change, and other ecological challenges.
Moths are widely used as subjects and symbols in literature and the arts, and a significant portion of the book showcases a variety of examples. As the author acknowledges, “Moths seem to flit between the arts and the sciences.” References to moths are found in the biblical books of Isaiah and St. Matthew, and they also make appearances in Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Merchant of Venice. A book of essays by Virginia Woolf is titled The Death of the Moth. The painting Moth and Candle (Louis Busman) and the drawing A Moth Trap in the Woods (K.A. Doktor-Sargent) are examples of visual art, and Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Moth Requiem is a musical piece written for eleven female voices, three harps, and an alto flute. Many works of art and literature revolve around the attraction of moths to flames. Goethe's poem Ecstatic Longing, for example, depicts the moth refusing to recognize the hazards involved in moving toward a flame.
There is much more to be found in this captivating volume. For example, in some countries caterpillars are important sources of human nutrition. And Eri, one unique form of silk, is manufactured by the Ailanthus Silk Moth, the production of which varies from other silks. Often referred to as the “fabric of peace,” it is used by religious denominations that do not want to kill insects. Also, scientists are now using DNA barcoding of short genetic sequences instead of morphological differences to untangle some of the moth taxonomic problems. Carefully researched, this book presents a provocative and stirring view of moths as living organisms with many fascinating biological features and cultural connections.