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Much has been made this summer of the plethora of Miller moths, otherwise known as the flying form of the Army Cutworm. According to Deane Bowers, an entomologist at CU, the reason they’re so bothersome to us is because of their method of navigation, which apparently uses bright stars or the moon to guide them from their original habitat in eastern Colorado and Kansas to their destination in the front range of the Rockies, which is your house and mine. When we turn on the lights, the moths go berserk, as do our cats. And they make a mess on our windows and our ceilings, and bother us when we try to read at night, and crunch when we step on them. They really are simply not one of the best features of a summer in the mountains.
We’ve had many more than in the past few years, when we had just a handful about this time of year. This season, however, we had to resurrect a time honored custom in our family: the bowl of soapy water.
Back in the dark ages of the late 40s and 50s, when our little cabin had holes you could see through even on a cloudy day, we usually arrived about the 29th of June, which meant we were in time for my father’s birthday on the 1st of July, followed by plenty of fireworks on the 4th. And it also meant Miller time, when that phrase had nothing to do with beer.
In the evening, when we lit our mantle lamps, the Millers would swarm and we would set out the speckled gray enameled dishpan (the one with the chip at the hole where it hung on the nail) filled with soapy water. In droves, the Millers would fly around the light, each eventually dropping into the pan with a little hiss as it hit the bubbles. It seemed strange to me that they flew with such fury and struggled so little once they hit the soap bubbles, almost as though it were a relief. According to Dr. Bowers, that may indeed be the case, since artificial light seems to confuse the nocturnal navigation system these moths have been using for many millennia.
There are other methods of dealing with Millers, old and new. My father used to catch them in his hand and throw them against any convenient wall, but he didn’t have to sweep them up. Fly swatters usually result in a pretty awful mess, and it takes a pretty good lick to kill, rather than simply stun, one. Using a bug bomb works, but it’s too slow. One article in the paper suggested putting out the lights in the house and using a flashlight to lead them outdoors, like the Pied Piper. I haven’t tried that method, but I doubt that it works very well.
The entomologists don’t have an explanation for the flight from the east to our mountains. It’s just something the moths do. And this year, because of a very wet and mild spring, there are many more than we’ve seen in recent years. Fortunately, although the Army cutworm lives for a year, in its flying form it lives just one or two weeks before it dies. As you read this, the Great Miller Invasion of 1990 is just a memory.
As for why they come here, I think it’s the same reason so many others from that part of the country come here -- the great views and the cool, clean air. And besides, if you had just two weeks to live, where would you want to be?
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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