The Surreal Moth Meme Has Wonderfully Weird Science Behind It
On July 14, redditor No_Reason27 posted a close-up photo of a moth outside their window on the r/creepy subreddit. It has received 33 thousand upvotes since then, and the top comment says, “Hey buddy you have any LAMPS?!”
Then on August 6, Twitter user jonwadec posted the image along with the caption “y’all got any fuckin lamps?” Based on the moth’s surreal and grotesque appearance, the tweet and the original Reddit comment suggest that the moth is begging for a lamp, compelled to pursue it by addiction, desire, or some mix of both. The tweet went viral with over 230 thousand likes and 80 thousand retweets. Then came the memes, like the one you see below:
At the risk of over-generalizing, literally every single person in the world has seen a moth fluttering around a street light or porch light, or they’ve seen moths fly in the front door in the summer time. These experiences make it clear that something is going on between moths and lamps, and this is where we come to the first hypothesis about what drives moths to the flame.
“Moths often use the moon to orient themselves during night flight,” Mike Saunders, Ph.D., a professor of entomology at Penn State, said in 2008. “Using the moon as a reference, moths can sustain linear flight in a given direction.” With the advent of lamps, though, moths got all messed up. For instance, if a moth mistakes a porch light for the moon and tries to maintain a fixed distance from it, the confused insect could just end up circling the lamp until it’s too tired to fly. Contrary to what the memes suggest, this phenomenon is less about desire and more about confusion.
One of the longest-standing hypotheses about why moths seek out artificial sources of light is that they have evolved to use natural lights for navigation. The idea is that by maintaining a trajectory with a constant angle in relation to the moon, a moth can ensure it is continuing on a forward path. As the moth flies, the moon stays mostly stationary, providing a fixed reference point for navigation. This behavior is called transverse orientation.
Nobody knows why moths are attracted to light, although theories like the one above — or a combination of all of them — may possess some truth. No matter why moths are attracted to lights, they sure make good comedic fodder.