Mystery Matters

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(Revised from my Tales of the Bent Twig Trail blog post from Bernheim May 2)

It’s not what we know that matters, but what we hunger to understand. Whatever fuels our curiosity lights our path, as surely as moonbeams or even moth wings. Could it be that our personal evolution is sparked more by moments of wonder and the journey that such “wonder-lust” leads us on than by moments of clarity? I’m not trying to sound prophetic, I’m merely pondering the possibility that mystery or wonder may be necessary to our personal and planetary salvation. Surely, there would be no hope for us, or the plants, animals, and landscapes we cherish without it.

A couple of years ago, I joined outstanding Volunteer Naturalist, Joe Cichan for a Froggy Night Adventure here at Bernheim Arboretum where I work. In the darkening woods of mid spring the mayapple blossoms shone brightly in the moonlight as the spring peepers, toads, and cricket frogs   added their soundtrack to our evening in the forest. Because of the brightness of the blooms, I bent to examine one beneath the mayapple’s twin umbrella leaves. By chance I touched a petal that wasn’t a petal. It moved, revealing itself to be a white moth. Her wings were nearly as large as the petals. I looked closely and discovered seven white moths, each with the same tan-colored line on their wings, and each moth hidden well against a petal. I was awestruck!

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In all my years of traipsing about the woods and looking for and at wildflowers, I’d never seen these moths. What kind were they, and what were they doing? I researched, but only found one reference to this white moth and no genus or species name that might provide a more sure road map. Last year I checked out dozens of mayapple blooms, but never found the mysterious white moths.

This spring when I noticed the mayapples blooming on a small woodland trail near my office, I took a peak, and there they were! In fact, over fifty percent of the fully opened  mayapple blossoms I examined had one to seven of these moths tucked inside them. Nearly all of the moths faced inward towards the pistil in the middle of the flowers, and this added to the floral illusion.  Once again I searched reference books and the Internet for clues. This time I uncovered at least part of the mystery. The white moth is called the white slant-winged moth, Tetracis cachexiata and belongs to the family Geometridae. I learned that the caterpillars feed on ash, maples, cherry, and several other trees and shrubs, but found nothing noting their communal behavior, or what the relationship between the mayapple and the moth might be, or how it evolved.

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Since all parts of the mayapple except the ripened fruit are poisonous,  I fancied that the moths were in a secret lepidopteran society partaking in an ancient narcotic nectar sipping ritual, but my research indicates that mayapples produce no nectar. Then I speculated that they were gathering pollen and were circled about in a moth version of a quilting bee, quietly stitching together some secret fabric of the planet, yet to be discerned. When collected by entomologists and studied the moths had very little pollen on them, and thus it seems unlikely that the white moths contribute much to mayapple pollination. Certainly the careful camouflage provides protection for the moths, but how did this relationship evolve; and if not helping with pollination, do the moths contribute something or some service for the flowers? Or are these winged phantoms the sole beneficiaries of this relationship?

The mystery of the white moth is a reminder that observation and wonder point us on a journey. We move a few steps forward, uncover a clue and are teased to follow the path beyond where the light shines, or in some cases we follow the will-o’-the wisp. But even that “foolish fire” can lead to worlds unknown; maybe the the white moth has even greater secrets to reveal.

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