Mothpocalypse Now: moth infestation may disappear over weekend

Thousands of recently-hatched moths have occupied Fort Collins within the last week. According to Matt Camper, Colorado State University faculty instructor and entomologist, this is an anomaly.

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“We haven’t seen anything like this in over 30 years,” Camper said. “At least in Colorado, nothing.”

These local moths, known as vagabond crambus in the scientific community, typically feed on lawn grass throughout the summer in their caterpillar forms until taking up residence in their cocoons around mid-July. Toward the end of the summer, the vagabond crambus in its moth form emerges from its cocoon. A high population of moths now suggests that there was a high level of caterpillars over this past summer.

“It’s a past infestation, and the moths are now remnants of the infestation this summer,” Camper said. “We know that in the caterpillar form they can cause incredible damage in high numbers by clipping the tips of grass like a lawnmower.”

The moths are significantly prevalent in the Fort Collins area this year, but Camper said it is difficult to determine an exact explanation.

“A storm may have pushed the moths up into the Denver, Castle Rock, and Fort Collins areas,” Camper said. “Abundant insect infestations can ride storms and it could just be something that has been pushed up.”

These moths are attracted to light, constantly swarming areas with high light presence, specifically at night. Shutting off porch lights and limiting light as much as possible can attract less moth action.

“Moths have traditionally utilized celestial light to navigate,” Camper said. “They’re attracted to the light during the night by nature.”

Camper said he cautions people against using any pesticide or insect treatment on the moths. As soon as the moths have mated sometime this weekend, they will die and no longer have a presence, he said.

“Insects spend most of their time in the larvae stage, and in the adult stage or moth stage, they’re programmed to mate,” Camper said. “Once they’ve mated, the moths will die, and the birds will be happy.”

Camper is also involved with CSU’s Bug Zoo, which boasts an impressive collection of arthropods. An arthropod is an invertebrate animal with an exoskeleton, jointed appendages, and a segmented body. Arthropods include insects, arachnids, myriapods and crustaceans.

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Large numbers of vagabond crambus moths rest on the outside of a door at the Plant Sciences building on Friday morning. (Forrest Czarnecki | Collegian)

“We lend out bugs to professors that use them in class, as well as use them for outreach programs for groups like K-12 students and FFA,” Camper said. “We buy a lot of bugs, and there’s a big enthusiast trade market for bugs.”

CSU’s Bug Zoo showcases a collection of 30 different species, including scorpions, hermit crabs, tarantulas, beetles, cockroaches, and much more. The selection totals somewhere near 20,000 individual arthropod specimens, with both native Colorado and exotic species.

“I really like tarantulas, I love arachnids a lot,” said Maia Holmes, a Warner College of Natural Resources senior that is also in charge of insect husbandry for CSU’s Bug Zoo. “Arthropods are so under-appreciated.”

Holmes has a band of volunteers and works in the Bug Zoo every day of the week. She is in charge of feeding, monitoring, and general care of the insects.

“It’s strange to me that arthropods are so under-appreciated,” Holmes said. “Arthropods are about 80 percent of the terrestrial biomass of the planet, and 97 percent of the biomass consists of invertebrates as a whole.”

According to Holmes, there are approximately 122 million insects to every human on earth. Within this statistic, there are three million ants per human on the planet.

“It’s also strange to me that people are so afraid of bugs, when they’re literally everywhere,” Holmes said.

Camper also acknowledged the intense reality of the number of insects we as humans coexist with.

“In really fertile soil, like a pasture or something with grass, there can be a lot of bugs,” Camper said. “A single footprint in a pasture is covering approximately 7,000 arthropods. It’s incredible.”

For more information and updates on CSU’s Bug Zoo, you can check out “CSU Bug Zoo” on Facebook.

Collegian reporter Jessie Trudell can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @JessieTrudell.