Why Are Moths Drawn to Flames?

iStock/Zffoto
iStock/Zffoto

Around the world, moths make kamikaze dives into light bulbs and open flames with such regularity that they have their own idiom. What is it about lights that make moths so crazy?

For a long time, scientists blamed the moon. Moths used the moon as a navigational beacon, it was argued, keeping it at a constant angle to their direction of travel in order to fly straight. Light sources used by humans, whether they’re campfires or porch lights, threw a monkey wrench into this system. The moon is far enough away that the angle between it and a traveling moth isn’t going to change much, even after the moth flies a great distance. With a closer light source, though, the angle changes considerably after only a short distance. A moth confusing a light bulb or candle flame for the moon, the hypothesis went, would notice this change and attempt to correct its path by turning toward the light. After just a few course corrections, the moth would set itself into a tightening death spiral towards the light and eventually crash into it, either going down in flames or thwacking its poor little head.

On Second Thought...

Over the years, various holes were poked in this hypothesis. For one—and this is a big one—moths might not even use the moon for navigation.

There isn’t much evidence for it, especially when it comes to the over 50 percent of moths that don't migrate and wouldn’t have much use a celestial navigation aid in their short distance travels.

There’s also the fact that moths don't always circle around lights in a closing spiral like the moon hypothesis assumes. Most of the time, they actually head straight for it. Henry Hsiao, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina, has tracked moth flights as the bugs headed toward a light source and found that, most of the time, they fly in a straight line toward the light until they get very close, then veer off and circle at a steady distance.

Hsiao’s observations led him to develop a new hypothesis. He’s unsure what causes the moth to make a beeline to a light, but thinks that the circling behavior at close ranges is caused by a visual distortion common to all sighted creatures called a “Mach band.” The band is the region surrounding a bright light that is perceived as being darker than any other part of the sky. Hsiao thinks that moths hang out in the band because they want the cover of darkness for safety, and wind up circling the light until their flight path takes them away from the it (or causes them to crash into it).

Love Hurts

Another explanation, proposed by U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologists in the 1970s, is that the infrared light spectrum emitted by candle flames contains some of the exact same wavelengths of light given off by female moths' luminescent pheromones. In other words, it’s just male moths that are attracted to flames because they wrongly assume that they’re going to get lucky. This doesn’t explain their attraction to UV light, which doesn’t emit the same light wavelengths as moth pheromones, but it does say something very profound about the lure of love.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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