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Moth Scent Detection

July 4, 2014

Odor pollution could impede moths’ abilities to pollinate flowers.



Moths’ mixed signals. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Nectar-sipping insects like moths and butterflies have super sensitive odor receptors that let them home in on target flowers. University of Washington researcher Jeff Riffell studies moths in wind tunnels to see how background odors affect that ability.

JEFF RIFFELL (University of Washington):

And what we found is that the scent from the neighboring vegetation, but also pollutants from car exhaust can actually disrupt this behavior.


He and his colleagues have found that some pollutants mimic natural odor compounds and throw the insects off track. Since insects pollinate billions of dollars worth of food crops, the researchers would like to know more.

JEFF RIFFELL (University of Washington):

We’d like to know if these same effects are seen in other pollinators, like bees, and how these volatiles might affect farms neighboring these urban centers. That’s something we’re really interested in pursuing.


I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.