Never Too Late to Pollinate

There's something you can do for the Sphinx Moth.

4 mins read
A close up of a flower
A Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) at work pollinating in Pasadena. Photo: Phil Hopkins

It’s  Pollinator Week. And while we love our wacky holidays, this one is far more important than, say, National Cha-Cha Week or Eat S’mores Naked Day.

The reason: Without pollination, life on Earth as we know it, would pretty much cease to exist.

Here’s the skinny. Somewhere between 480 and 450 million years ago, ocean-dwelling crustaceans (like crabs, shrimp, and lobsters) began to morph from surf to turf, spawning terrestrial forms. And some of their landlubber progeny became the first insects. This explains why many insects, with their juicy, segmented abdomens, pincers and hard exoskeletons still resemble their aquatic ancestors. Plants also hauled out of the seas around the same time, adapting to a sunnier, less soggy life on terra firma.

For the next 300 million years, however, there were no flowering plants. The newly landed plant forms, including ferns, cycads and the deciduous conifer known as the ginkgo, relied entirely on wind pollination for fertilization. The early insects were flightless and had virtually no role to play in botanical reproduction.

Then around 150 million years ago, flowering plants emerged, leaving their archaic predecessors in the dust—or, rather, in a fertile dusting of pollen. These were pollen-factory angiosperms (meaning “covered seeds”) versus the more primitive gymnosperms (or “naked seeds”).

Insects took notice and began feeding within the nutritious and showy flowers, incidentally spreading the plant’s genetic information far and wide in the process. Natural selection took advantage of this and angiosperms diversified, expanding their vocabulary of floral shapes, sizes, colors and fragrances in order to attract more insects. And flowering plants also began to produce nectar literally to sweeten the deal. 

Earth needs the pollinators more than you need every single Instagram-ready fruit or vegetable.

Of course, insects, along with later-evolved pollinators like birds and bats, don’t just pollinate our roses and daffodils: they pollinate the veggies and grains that form the mainstay of our diet and the diets of the wild and domesticated animals that we eat. This applies to even the most Paleo-dining among us.

Let’s say that you’re a traditional Inuit person and sup primarily on seal. With little to no arable land in your range, you’re not chowing down on big crunchy salads or summer peaches. But it’s an oversight to think that carnivorous menus aren’t plant-dependent. Those yum-o, plump pinnipeds eat crabs, seabirds and fish that eat green plants, as well as other critters. 

Until quite recently, scientists believed that algae simply released their DNA into the free-flowing waters as though it were a public swimming pool in Newark, taking their random shot and hoping to get lucky—Badda-bing! 

This may often be the case, but now studies reveal that prawns and other nibbly, wiggly life forms also help to distribute seaweed DNA – not as direct a relationship as the bumblebees bumping around in your petunias, but you get the idea. 

All of this is to say the more pollinators the better. Yes, it’s late in the season to begin, but kids, we don’t live in Inuit country. It will be hot and sunny in the ‘Dena and environs long after the Halloween merch is stocked at Target, so if you’ve got the gumption, grab a shovel and get to gardening.

The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation is a great place to start learning about pollination. The organization takes its name from a North American blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerxes), which was driven to extinction by humans.

“Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov was a lifelong observer of butterflies, notably his 1944 assertion that the Karner Blue, an endangered butterfly, was in grave peril not only because of the usual culprits of pollution and deforestation but also because this insect inhabits oak savannahs and pine barrens, which are dangerously fire-prone in parts of western Wisconsin and eastward to the Atlantic seaboard.

A insect on a branch
A female Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). Photo: Jill Utrup / USFWS

Today, the Karner Blue is found in parts of New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. But well-meaning and increasingly necessary fire-suppression programs kill the butterfly, its food sources, and its larvae. Wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) is the only plant that Karner blue butterfly caterpillars can eat. And it’s scarce.

Under the current Endangered Species Act listings, the most important factor causing the decline of the Karner Blue (which Nabokov meticulously identified and classified, only to meet with dismissive disdain from the scientific community) is loss of habitat due to the suppression of wildfire, clearing land for farming, and developing land for commercial and residential purposes.

Curiously, nature, too, seems to work against this particular butterfly. When “unfettered and alive,” to quote Joni Mitchell, shrubs and trees create shade which suppresses the growth of wild lupine. Could this mean a no-win for Nabokov’s favorite Blue?

The Karner Blue is highly sensitive to both direct and indirect climate change impacts, as documented by a 2019 five-year review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This study is not only relevant as to the decline of an individual species, it is also a cautionary tale.

As go the Blues, so go…?

Bottom line: The Internet and our public libraries abound with useful information about pollinators, and the Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to start your research.

But currently in the ‘Dena, agaves and aloes are proffering their defiant spikes of orange-red and acid green, to the delight of hummingbirds.


And here, we must add a reality check. Most likely, you are not a subsistence farmer. With all due respect, you do not cultivate whatever you grow as the sole source of feeding your family.

So please reconsider the dreaded hornworm munching your tomato plants. Many call it the Tomato Hornworm, but it’s actually the Tobacco Hornworm. This magnificent, voracious caterpillar is the larva of the Sphinx Moth, perhaps one of the most efficient pollinators in the region. It’s as large as a twilight-feeding hummingbird.

a moth in flight
A White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), on the job. Photo: Yuanda Darian / Pexels

Yes, this luxuriantly large, banded green worm will seemingly munch your tomato plants to twigs in a matter of hours. Honestly, at this point in world affairs, we have to ask: so what? What’s really damaged, other than your homesteader hubris?

A close up of a plant
Tobacco Hornworm. Photo: Pexels

This is not “The Yearling”, where Paw has to command his son to destroy Flag, the rescued fawn who nibbles the family’s life-or-death crops down to the ground.

Come on. Really? There’s a Pavilions around the corner.

At any of the San Gabriel Valley’s many farmers’ markets, on any given day, you can buy heirloom tomatoes in shades of purple, near-black, indigo, celadon, and ruby varying from gnarly, bumpy, shiny, and tight-skinned to satiny-sleek.  Perfect for slicing with cracked black pepper and a schmear of homemade tzatziki on wheat toast.

The fact is that planting tomatoes for Sphinx Moths, parsley for Spicebush Swallowtails, etc., supports the resilient but fragile conversation known as organic life. Earth needs the pollinators more than you need every single Instagram-ready fruit or vegetable.

So plant an extra tomato seedling for the Sphinx Moth. Do it for the planet.

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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