—Our Obligate Future: Exploring the Delicate Relationship Between the Yucca Moth and Her Tree is contributed by 2019 NEST Community Grant recipient Nicole Banowetz.

In obligate mutualism, one organism cannot survive without the other. Both organisms have evolved in such a way that they are obligated or forced to rely on one another. There are a variety of plant and insect relationships that fall into this category. The Joshua tree and the yucca moth have this unique relationship. The Yucca moth is the only creature who can collect the pollen of the Joshua tree. She very carefully gathers the pollen under her chin and takes the pollen and pollinates another flower. She also lays her eggs in the flower, being careful not to lay too many or else the larvae will eat too many of the seeds which develop from her pollinating the flower. This delicate relationship has evolved between the moth and the yucca, and both are aware that they must fulfill their part of the relationship to survive. Humans could learn a lot from such balanced and careful interactions between species.

My inflatable sculptures highlight the poetic beauty, strangeness and fragility of this unique relationship. My felled Joshua tree lays across the dessert ground, a stark white against the dessert landscape. Each enlarged blossom has bright orange soft pollen attached to it, and an opening where the pollen can be deposited by the moth. The pollen’s bright orange color contrasts its environment and draws attention to its importance.

The moth appears slowly approaching the Joshua trees, swaying gently. The moth seems to dance with the Joshua Trees, and her movements express the gentle and kind relationship between moth and tree.

The Center for Biological Diversity writes, “Recent studies show that Joshua trees are dying off because of hotter, drier conditions, with very few younger trees becoming established. Even greater changes are projected over the coming decades. Scientists earlier this year projected that the Joshua tree will be largely gone from its namesake national park by the end of the century.” Together they survive through an obligatory mutualistic relationship. Without one the other will die. Without the tree, the moth will not survive, and without the moth the tree will not survive. They do their part for one and other but now it is time for us to do our part for both of them.


This project was supported by—and created while in residence at—the Joshua Tree Highland Art Residency, and by a community grant from NEST Studio for the Arts.