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Its miller time

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I'd planned to write this week about the death of former President Ronald Reagan and his proud yet overwhelmingly sad journey into the sunset of his life.

But at 8:04 a.m. Monday, as I was driving to work, I pulled down the sun visor in my 1972 Ford Pinto and a very large miller moth that'd apparently spent the night sleeping above the visor suddenly awoke, stretched its wings, rolled out of bed and flew directly into the left nostril of my nose.

And so it was that the planned Reagan tribute column went out the window -- along with most of my cup of coffee, the St. Christopher statue that had been glued to the dashboard and one lens of my sunglasses, which was snapped out of its frame as I slapped furiously at my nose, trying to dislodge what I initially thought was a bat.

Visitor from the east

Following this horrific incident I decided to write about our annual winged visitor from the east, an insect with the scientific classification Euxoa auxiliaris, subclassification goddamus mothus flium upei mi noseum.

The swarms of Euxoa auxiliaris (Latin, meaning "little bastards") arrive along the Front Range of Colorado every year about this time. Most entomologists believe their migration, which begins shortly after they emerge from the caterpillar stage in the rich farm soil of Nebraska and Kansas, is triggered by the cooler temperatures of our mountains and the nectar -- a food source for the moths -- in our mountain flowers.

Although, a smaller number of entomologists believe the moths' long migration is triggered by the realization that they live in Nebraska and Kansas, and if they don't get out while they're young they'll end up like their parents -- broke and talking to cows.

Seriously, miller moths were given their name because their wings are covered with fine scales that, when rubbed off, reminded people in the 1800s of the dusty white flour that covered the clothing of millers.

This week should mark the peak of the moths' migration through Colorado Springs, hundreds of thousands of them, one following another in unquestioning submission, making their relentless, mindless journey from the heartland of the country, all of them driven by a primeval urge.

That's right, the chance to meet Dr. James Dobson.

Glowing eyes

Adding to the miller moths' great popularity, in addition to flying up our noses, is the way their eyes glow. Colorado State University entomologist and miller moth expert Frank Peairs says the spooky glow is caused by "threadlike trachea in the base of the eyes that carry oxygen and reflect light, giving the appearance of glowing." If you don't encounter any miller moths this week but want to see this eerie eye-glow, experts say you can just hang around with El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg and wait until he sees a girl.

Not everyone dislikes the miller moths. Take our obese cat, Spike. (Figuratively speaking. To actually take Spike you'd need three strong friends and a refrigerator dolly.)

Spike sleeps pretty much nonstop from July, through the winter, into the final weeks of May, rising once or twice a week during that time and demanding that we rub his huge belly. For those 11 months he's apparently saving his energy for the four-week miller moth season, when he hardly sleeps at all, flinging his athletic 17-pound frame at the moths, batting them down and eating them.

Spike gets better at moth patrol each year, to the point that now he's starting to scare me. Take Monday night. After we'd all gone to bed, Spike switched on the lamp in the front hall, opened the front door and sat on his enormous cat rump near the bright light, drooling. (Although it was the napkin he'd tied around his neck that really gave me the creeps.)

Spike doesn't eat all of the moths, of course. The ones he cannot catch end up at road intersections, where they attract swarms of swallows that swoop down among the cars and pick off the fluttering moths. So pronounced is the gathering of moths and swallows at intersections that CSU entomologist Peairs and some of his colleagues are -- I am not kidding -- studying the phenomenon.

Let the moths out

One actual theory: The moths fly out of cars at the intersections.

The nocturnal insects often get inside vehicles at dawn and seek out dark places such as above the visors, under the seats and in Doug Bruce's mind. When drivers start their cars, the startled moths fly around inside the vehicles. Intersections, Peairs theorizes, offer motorists a safe place to stop and open their car windows to let the moths out, thus the great concentration of the bugs at traffic lights.

(At the intersection of Woodmen Road and I-25, where the building of a new interchange now enters its 450th year, miller moths have decided to stay and are now doing much of the actual construction work.)

So what can we do about this infestation of moths? Well, for years Peairs and other entomologists have suggested placing a bucket of water under a bright light bulb at night, so that the moths, being attracted to the bulb, eventually hit the water and drown.

But now, from a company called U-Spray out of Lilburn, Ga., comes a high-tech solution. It's called Insect Vac with models ranging from $70 to $140. Here now, from the actual U-Spray catalog:

"Attractive outside ornamental light fixture which uses the light to attract moths and other nighttime flying pests. Once they get to the source of the light they are sucked inside, where a fan is spinning at a high rate of speed. The blades of the fan quickly shred the insect apart."

Because I don't want another Monday morning like the one I had this week, I decided to order one. If you want to know how it's working, just stop me on the street and ask.

I'll be the guy with the ornamental light fixture hanging from his nose.

Rich Tosches, www.richt@csindy.com, can be heard on the Eagle, 103.9 AM, on Thursday mornings at 7:30.

  • Its miller time

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