Discover the magical world of moths
The trap was set last night. Baited with light, a false moon to lure the mysterious soft-winged creatures of the dark. Moths.
Mike Andrews, a visitor officer at Lackford Lakes, is now inspecting the finds. As he removes the plastic sheets, which funnel the insects away from the battery-powered bulb, a few flutter out, already warmed by the sun. Mike tuts. “There’s not as many as there should be. The numbers seem to be falling every summer.” Even so, the variety inside the trap is impressive.
Against the hardboard walls and among the egg cartons, which provide shelter for the captured moths, are splashes of coppery green, dusty brown and burnished bronze, vanilla-flecked creams and milky white. It’s a miniature monsters’ ball of fur
stoles, hairy chests, hunched backs and wings held closed or stiffly open, patterned with spots, stripes, and jagged, woodshaving swirls.
Mike points to a birch twig hunkered at the bottom of the trap. A twig with legs. It’s a bufftip, whose fluffed-up blow-dry face looks exactly like the uneven surface of snapped wood. Next to it with broad, green, leaf-like wings held open in a butterfly pose is a large emerald. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It stands stock-still, letting me photograph it in detail. It reminds me of a Spiderman villain. I ask Mike if it’s rare. He shakes his head, smiling.
“Oh no, all of these are common, they are all around us, but we don’t generally see them unless we accidentally disturb where they’re resting in the day.” Still, I can’t help but feel ridiculously excited. There is something fantastical about moth trapping. “It’s like finding fairies in your garden,” I say to Mike, “a real glimpse of a hidden world.”
After all, the extent of the world of moths really is breathtaking. While there are 58 day-flying butterflies in the UK, there are around 2,500 species of moths. These are commonly divided into macro moths (the bigger species), of which there are around 900, and micro moths, which are smaller and generally harder to identify. But like the distinction between butterfly and moth within the order of Lepidoptera, the distinction is artificial, one of convenience rather than hard science.
Mike has been trapping for about 15 years, mostly for pleasure but also to introduce people to moths. He encourages me to try and ID some myself, but explains that even some of the larger macro moths can be difficult to name. Pointing at a group of bronze moths huddled into one of the cartons, he says: “They’re either rustics or uncertains.” I raise a questioning eyebrow. “Uncertains?” He grins. “The clue’s in the name.” I’ve always loved moth names. While some of them are ‘does what it says on the tin’ jobs – the descriptive ‘bright-line browneye’, the ‘brown-line bright-eye’, the ‘yellow-tail’, the ‘browntail’ – others are wonderfully creative monikers that reek of the dusty studies of Victorian gents. The ‘dingy footman’, whose appearance was thought similar to 20th century servants, the sooty black ‘chimney sweeper’, the pinched cheek rouge of the ‘maiden’s blush’ and the furry finery of the regal-looking ‘white ermine’ moth.
Mike even has his own name for some of the moths. He points out a clouded border, its flattened wings swirled with Friesian shapes of black on white. “I call it the cow moth.” He has other favourites too. A big teddy bear of a moth, its chest coated in fur, is trying to crawl deeper into one of the cardboard crevices. He looks grumpy, hungover. “This is the drinker,” Mike says. The moth’s name comes from the caterpillar, which has been seen drinking dew from the grass stems it feeds on. But as an adult it also flies as if under the influence.
“It’s certainly not a great flier. You often see them outside the trap as if they couldn’t quite make it inside.” I look again at the moth, imagining him hiccupping up against the front door, resting his beery bulk on the frame as his key scratches in vain for the lock.
The Poplar Hawkmoth
The beautiful large emerald moth
Mike Andrews at Lackford Lakes
The appropriately named drinker moth