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.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

Wayfair
Wayfair

From September 23 to September 24, customers can get as much as 80 percent off home decor, furniture, WFH essentials, kitchen appliances, and more during the Wayfair's Way Day 2020 sale. Additionally, when you buy a select Samsung appliance during the sale, you'll also get a $200 Wayfair gift card once the product ships. Make sure to see all that the Way Day 2020 sale has to offer. These prices won’t last long, so we've also compiled a list of the best deals for your home below.

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Are Halloween Pumpkins Edible?

Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash
Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash

When people visit their local family-owned pumpkin patch around Halloween, they aren’t usually looking for dinner. The majority of the nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins cultivated in the U.S. each year are carved up instead of eaten, making the squash a unique part of the agriculture industry. For people who prefer seasonal recipes to decorations, that may raise a few questions: Are the pumpkins sold for jack-o’-lanterns different from pumpkins sold as food? And are Halloween pumpkins any good to eat?

The pumpkins available at farms and outside supermarkets during October are what most people know, but that’s just one type of pumpkin. Howden pumpkins are the most common decorative pumpkin variety. They’ve been bred specifically for carving into jack-o’-lanterns, with a symmetrical round shape, deep orange color, and sturdy stem that acts as a handle. Shoppers looking for the perfect carving pumpkin have other options as well: the Racer, Magic Wand, Zeus, Hobbit, Gold Rush, and Connecticut field pumpkin varieties are all meant to be displayed on porch steps for Halloween.

Because they’re bred to be decoration first, carving pumpkins don’t taste very good. They have walls that are thin enough to poke a cheap knife through and a texture that’s unappealing compared to the squashes consumers are used to eating. “Uncut carving pumpkins are safe to eat; however, it's not the best type to use for cooking,” Daria McKelvey, a supervisor for the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, tells Mental Floss. “Carving pumpkins are grown for their large size, not the flavor. Their flesh can be bland and the fibers are very stringy.”

To get the best-tasting pumpkins possible this autumn, you’re better off avoiding the seasonal supermarket displays. Many pumpkin varieties are bred especially for cooking and eating. These include Sugar Pie, Kabocha, Jack-Be-Little, Ghost Rider, Hubbard, Jarrahdale, Baby Pam, and Cinderella pumpkins. You can shop for these varieties by name at local farms or in the produce section of your grocery store. They should be easy to tell apart from the carving pumpkins available for Halloween: Unlike decorative pumpkins, cooking pumpkins are small and dense. This is part of the reason they taste better. McKelvey says. “[Cooking pumpkins] are smaller, sweeter, have a thicker rind (meatier), and have less fibers, making them easier to cook with—but not so good for carving.” These pumpkins can be stuffed, blended into soup, or simply roasted.

If you do want to get some culinary use out of your carving pumpkins this Halloween, set aside the seeds when scooping out the guts. Roasted with seasonings and olive oil, seeds (or pepitas) from different pumpkin varieties become a tasty and nutritious snack. Another option is to turn the flesh of your Halloween pumpkin into purée. Adding sugar and spices and baking it into a dessert can do a lot to mask the fruit’s underwhelming flavor and consistency.

Whatever you do, make sure your pumpkin isn’t carved up already when you decide to cook with it. There are many ways to recycle your jack-o’-lanterns, but turning them into pie isn’t one of them. "If one does plan on cooking with a carving pumpkin, it should be intact,” McKelvey says. “Never use one that's been carved into a jack-o'-lantern, otherwise you could be dealing with bacteria, dirt and dust, and other little critters.”