For centuries, we have observed that artificial sources of light hold a strange fascination for moths. Despite decades of research, we still don’t know the cause of this attraction. Some theories put it down to the way moths navigate; others think it’s a mechanism to help them to escape from perceived danger. But the truth is, little evidence exists to support either of these ideas.
Whatever the cause is, research has shown that this deadly attraction may have even more sinister consequences than we first thought. In an open access paper in Global Change Biology, my colleagues and I describe the first evidence which shows that the effects of artificial light on moths may have serious implications for the wider ecosystem.
There has been plenty written about the danger posed by declining bee and butterfly populations, on the basis that some plants rely on these insects to carry pollen and fertilise flowers, in order to reproduce. But many people aren’t aware that moths also perform this task: our study of field sites across Oxfordshire found that one in four moths were carrying pollen, from at least 28 different plant species.
And like their cousins the butterflies, moths are in trouble: according to Butterfly Conservation’s Richard Fox: “the total abundance of moths in Britain has decreased by over a quarter since the 1960s”. Research indicates that artificial light, such as street lamps, has contributed to this decline by affecting moths’ development, reproduction and ability to escape predators.
Now, our data suggests that street lights are also directly thwarting night-time pollination, by attracting moths upwards, away from the fields and hedgerows. We found that the abundance of moths at ground level was halved in lit areas, while flight activity at the height of the street light was nearly doubled. The diversity of species was also reduced at ground level, with 25% fewer moth species in lit areas, compared to places without street lighting.
This change is likely to disrupt nighttime pollination by moths, and indeed we found some evidence that moths may carry less pollen, from fewer plant species, in lighted streets. This could mean that the impacts of street lights go beyond posing a health risk to moths. Plants that rely on moths for pollination would also suffer if their reproduction is impeded – and this might, in turn, affect organisms that eat those plants or drink their nectar.
In a best-case scenario, some of these so-called cascading effects might be mitigated where flowers can rely on other insects such as bees for pollination. But there are further factors driving declines in pollinator populations, such as climate change, pesticides and habitat loss. Now, our research suggests that artificial light can be added to the list.
So how can we protect these beautiful, under-appreciated insects and the important role they play in our environment?
Another recent paper published by researchers in Switzerland suggests that moths may be evolving to be less strongly attracted to lights. Under controlled experimental conditions in a flight cage, they found that Spindle Ermine moths from urban populations were less likely to be captured in light-baited moth traps than their rural counterparts.
These findings suggest that moths which can resist the temptation of lights put themselves at a significant advantage over their peers. Over time this has led city-dwelling moth populations to become less attracted to lights, through natural selection. But this is all relative: urban moths are still far from immune to the deadly allure of urban street lights.
We can’t simply switch street lighting off: although the evidence for its actual benefits is questionable, it certainly contributes to many people’s feeling of safety and security when outside after dark and proposals to turn lights off are often unpopular.
But if we don’t wish to wait for the slow crawl of evolution, it may be that recent advances in street lighting technology can help to mitigate the impacts of artificial light. For example, developments born out of a desire for energy efficiency could also minimise the impact of street lighting on moths. Measures such as switching on street lights for part of the night, dimming them or introducing motion-activated lighting would reduce moths’ exposure to street lights. Similarly, the flexibility of LED lights might allow for the creation of street lights that are less attractive to moths, which respond most strongly to short-wavelength blue light.
Nevertheless, artificial light at night continues to increase as we seek to drive darkness from the streets. Our research is another warning that this may have far-reaching consequences for the organisms around us.