The Extraordinary Value of a Hawk Moth

I love moths, their fluttery petal wings tap-tap-tapping against the screen door or sneaking inside the hole I always mean to repair. I love how they often go unnoticed, overshadowed by the garishness of their day-time cousins. I picture them going about their business, happy to have the peace of a starlight night.

Not everyone appreciates moths.  Indeed, some cultures, like my Celtic ancestors, believe them to be an omen of death. Hawk moths especially are vilified, their large size and tanker-like midsections causing many to feel bile rise up in their throat. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about one in The Sphinx, calling it “some living monster of hideous conformation” that portends his own death, mania, or both. Dracula’s Renfield eats Death’s Head Hawk moths, believing he can ingest their life force.  Buffalo Bill, in Silence of the Lambs, stuffs Death’s Head hawk moths into his victims’ throats. On a lighter, less nightmare-inducing note, the antagonist in one of my favorite shows, Miraculous, is named Hawk Moth.

In spite of pop culture’s misappropriation of them, the world is a better place for having hawk moths. They don’t pollinate food crops, which makes them less poster-worthy than bees. Instead, they work on hard-to-reach plants like the rare star orchid in Madagascar. When Darwin predicted hawk moths would be the ones to pollinate the long nectar spurs found in the star orchid, he was ridiculed. But he was right. Smithsonian called hawk moths “the underdogs of the pollinator world,” a title I feel they would appreciate. 

This year, while passing the sage that lines my garden path, I looked down to see what I thought, at first, was an errant leaf, missed in our Autumnal cleanup. But settling in, I saw the hint of antennae, fragile legs clinging to swaying leaf. Ah. A hawk moth. Mottled brown camouflage almost hid it from my view. They have no movie-worthy defenses, these giant pollinators. They squeak when provoked, and have small thorns on their legs that may scratch you a bit if you’re lucky enough to have one crawl along your arm. Not wanting to disturb it, I was content to watch it. After all, I thought, the moth was likely resting on its way to distant plants, and I could easily provide it a safe haven for an hour or two.

I sat for 5 minutes, 10, 15. I called my children to look, texted a couple of friends, almost went across the street to share with my neighbors, “Look! A Sphinx moth! Do you see, the brown that looks like broken-through pieces of dried leaf? It’s holding so still. I could have missed it…” But I recognize that those of us who feel blessed to see a hawk moth are a rare group, and I don’t want to traumatize my neighbors or risk damaging the moth. Best to enjoy this bit of nature with those who can’t ignore me when I over-enthuse, like my children.

 Some imperiled plants need sturdy-bodied pollinators that can fly over oceans, a feat not many proboscis-sporting fliers can accomplish. The endangered Puerto Rican high chumbo cactus, for example, lives on only three small islands and hawk moths act as their link to each other and to the future. If hawk moths disappear, so will they. Aerial applications of pesticides have reduced hawk moth populations and consequently more plants are entering the endangered or imperiled list, like Egger’s century plant, a species of agave.  I imagine most of us won’t notice their disappearance, at least not at first. Still. Our lack of care in no way negates the value of their contributions.

Just as our culture has demonized hawk moths without understanding them, sometimes it vilifies people, especially church culture. Oh, we say the right words. We smile and express love while we insist on untenable  rules that affect different people astronomically. We throw out terms like ‘inclusion’ and ‘children of God’ but it’s a pale version of inclusion. We mean that everyone is welcome–as long as they change who they are to fit our preconceived notion of Godliness, which happens to mirror religious norms that work for us. We allow everyone to speak their truth, as long as that truth doesn’t make us uncomfortable. We might feel sorrow at their pain, but it isn’t a Godly sorrow. Instead, we refuse to do the things that would alleviate their suffering. We may even throw out some well-meaning but empty platitudes while we shake our heads and blame God for their trauma. We ignore the impact of our words and policies. Simultaneously, we force valuable members out of our circles, draining our wards of life-giving diversity. 

I believe God created all of our uniqueness and said, “It is good.” I believe the ‘good’ applied to each of us–hawk moths and Datura and butterflies and orchids. I believe that our narrow view of what inclusion looks like diminishes our own potential joy. At its most extreme, it destroys some of God’s most beautiful creations. Just as nature needs diversity, without full inclusion of every member our wards, too, stagnate and grow fetid, reduced in beauty and desirability. We need to embrace the glory that is God’s creativity, throw open our doors and our hearts. Because who knows? One of the people we ‘other’ could, if given the chance, be the pollinator that saves us from our own destruction. 

Maybe the hawk moth needed a safe place to rest, a place where she could recover from her weary work.

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6 Responses

  1. Katie Rich says:

    “Our lack of care in no way negates the value of their contributions.” Yes. What a great metaphor.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Deeply touching metaphor…really resonated with me.

  3. So beautiful, so relevant. So many of God’s creations must have come on iterations…whoopsie, we need to create a pollinator for orchids, stat!

  4. Serena says:

    Superb. Beautifully written and crafted! God said – “It is good.” I love that idea that he created diversity. Thank you.

  5. Vivian says:

    As a fellow-appreciator of under appreciated insects, I appreciate your appreciation of them, your photo, your post and your ideas and your metaphor. Thank you!

  6. John says:

    Love this. Reminds me of the tame and the wild olive branches. Should we spend our lives considering who is tame and who is wild? Or should we enjoy the fruits of the vineyard?

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