What can a common garden pest have to do with preserving fragile ecosystems on the islands of Hawaii? There are some astounding connections out there in the wild. Those leaf miners (little larvae that munch their way through leaves) that are destroying your precious pepper plants have some tropical cousins who are key to the survival of an entire species! Here’s your dose of wonder.

These leaf-residing larvae are the bane of many gardeners’ existence, but now they’re proving their rightful—and much needed—place in these Hawaiian ecosystems. So on this edition of Saturdays Around the World, we’re heading out to the beautiful island state to meet the researchers and make the acquaintance of this very special group of insects!

Along the way, we may even get a bonus tip on how to get along better with our enemies. But hey, let’s not think about them right now. Let’s talk about some worms.

Image: leaf miner trails through aspen leaves

Leaf miner trails
Wikimedia Commons

What in the world is a leaf miner?

Well, they’re pretty much what they sound like — they mine leaves!

In their larval stages, a variety of insects find themselves snuggled between the layers of a leaf, munching away at what’s inside. It’s essentially like if you were stuck in a gingerbread house and the only way to grow big enough to get out was to eat the entire thing. But sadly, as a result, the now damaged leaves end up decreasing the yield of the plant they’re feasting on, making for some very annoyed gardeners and farmers.

They’re so annoyed, in fact, that in researching this article I came across pages and pages of Google results just on how to eradicate them.

But here’s the thing: just because something is annoying, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place. And it surely doesn’t mean that we can’t team up with them for conservation!

This beautiful film below by Chris A. Johns gives us a peek into the lives of one leaf miner, Hawaii’s Philodoria micromoths. These moths are super interesting: they’re very tiny, have quite a unique appearance, are only found in Hawaii, and have very specialized food preferences. They don’t want to be in just any ‘ole leaf. No, they have their favorites. But as those favorites dwindle and become endangered across the islands, these micromoths are decreasing with them.

As a Ph.D. student at The University of Florida, Johns studied and searched for these moths, even discovering two species of Hawaiian micromoths that haven’t been seen in over a century! 1 And while researchers looked deeper at the relationships between these moths and their nearly extinct plant hosts, something emerged at another point in the moth’s life cycle. Biologists discovered that certain plants on the edge of extinction were missing their pollinators. And who may those pollinators be? You guessed it: our tiny moth friends!

For the full story of this connection — and some seriously stunning imagery — here’s the full film:

We’ve published another article featuring Johns beautiful work, and it’s hard not to lichen it. Check it out by clicking here!

If you’re interested in learning more about him, what drives him to be a creator, and seeing his full library, make sure you check out his website.

A conservation cycle!

It’s impossible to study one part of nature without studying a whole swath of other organisms. Everything is connected! You can’t just look at a moth without looking at its entire life cycle: the plants it calls home, and the plants it grows up to pollinate. But that’s a good thing — that’s how we actually make discoveries. You need to know more about the moth to save all the plants involved. And likewise, you need to look closer at those plants to save the moth.

But to look at all of these factors, you need collaboration. You have botanists and biologists coming together with their expertise to get to the root of what’s happening. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. (Okay, technically, some science does.) We need the collective knowledge of others to connect it all.

Want some examples? Check these articles out!

22 minutes

What Happens When Athletes and Scientists Team Up?

To put it simply: breakthroughs. This nonprofit is making it possible for scientists to get the data they need from every corner of the planet by teaming them up with the adventurers who are already there.

Read More

13 minutes

Saving Rivers by Turning Toxins Into Art!

How can painting with toxic sludge save rivers? Two professors at Ohio University are teaming up to combine art and science to conserve and protect polluted waterways!

Read More

Want to meet another one of these leaf-mining moths?

I’ll leave you with this video! It shows us the complete life cycle of the tomato leaf-mining moth, who has the best scientific name: Tuta absoluta. Seriously, just listen to this narrator say it and tell me you don’t smile just a little.

It also gives us more information on why gardeners and farmers don’t like them one bit! Check it out:

Via: Koppert Biological Systems [refKoppert Biological Systems. “Life Cycle of Tuta Absoluta (Tomato Leaf Mining Moth).” YouTube, 3 Jan. 2017, youtu.be/4MMu0c_m7UY. Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.[/ref]

So, what do you think?

If these leaf miners can have a huge positive impact on the environment with their terrible reputation, what else could? What could happen if we leaned harder on that thought? If we thought about the strengths of whoever’s bothering us (from insect to human), and how we could team up, could our frustrations and resulting stress be lowered?

Stay open to new possibilities!

  • Sam

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” —Albert Einstein 

Meet more of our tiny neighbors…

Click the button below to explore more articles featuring some of the seriously cool creatures bustling around under our noses.Take me to them!


  1. Miner Murray, Meghan. “These Moths Are the Size of Your Eyelash—And in Big Trouble.” Nationalgeographic.Com, 18 Nov. 2016, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/11/micromoths-hawaii-plants-endangered/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.
  2. Johns, Chris A. “LEAF MINERS.” Vimeo, 25 Aug. 2016, vimeo.com/180213992. Accessed 16 Dec. 2019.

Sam has written and edited hundreds of articles since joining the EWC team in 2016. She writes about topics from the wonders of nature to the organizations changing the world and the simple joys in life! Outside of the EWC office, she’s a part-time printmaker, collector of knick-knacks, and taster of cheeses.