Dear Dr. Boli: Why are moths attracted to flames? It seems contrary to the principle of natural selection. —Sincerely, An Observer of Lepidoptera.

Dear Sir or Madam: Natural selection is a complex and difficult study. Although it goes against our immediate intuition, it is a fact that the sacrifice of one individual often increases the chance of survival for others that share that individual’s genes.

The issue becomes even more complex when we must take into account matters of faith rather than mere survival. Moths are attracted to flames, not for practical reasons, but for religious ones. By self-immolation, the moth achieves a glorious martyrdom that assures him a place in a heaven filled with sweet-scented white nocturnal flowers the size of dinner plates. Such spectacular martyrdoms renew the flagging zeal of the rest of the believers, inspiring those who survive to prosecute the battle against woolen materials with renewed zeal. More eggs are laid, more caterpillars hatch, and the species prospers at the expense of a few individuals.

From these considerations it is obvious that the greatest enemy of the moth is the cool fluorescent light bulb, bright as a flame but cruelly lacking the power to produce the martyrdom every faithful moth craves. Simple souls that they are, moths will batter themselves against a fluorescent light, trying to reach the apparent flame within, until they die from exhaustion; but this form of death does not qualify as a martyrdom in the rigorous theology of moth religion. As more and more incandescent bulbs are replaced with fluorescent lights, entomologists fear that many species of moth may become extinct, or at least sullen and dispirited.


  1. Maurice says:

    Very interesting. I wonder if something similar is behind mosquitoes and their attraction to the “Bug Zapper” backyard device.

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