Don’t forget those lovely moths
We may be looking out for the butterflies in our gardens this month, but our nature writer Barry Madden encourages us to fall in love with moths too.
The subject of moths seems to invoke strong emotion. A friend of mine hates them with a vengeance, protesting her loathing of these demonic creatures of the night with a shudder. She refuses point blank to even take a tentative peep into a moth trap, despite my reasoned arguments that they are harmless and really quite fascinating. “I’d rather give myself an enema”, she will say, or something to that effect (she is a nurse). It seems that when she was a small child a moth flew into her room one night, its manic fluttering traumatising her to such an extent that she exhibits this extreme aversion. She loves butterflies though.
Sadly she is not alone in harbouring prejudice against moths; I feel this is a shame, because a glimpse into the hidden world of moths can open up a new appreciation of the wonders of nature.
My own awakening took place a few years ago at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, when my volunteering shift coincided with the assistant warden emptying his moth trap. Having never witnessed such an unveiling before, I sauntered over intrigued as to what would be revealed. Suffice to say I was so enthralled that I spent the next hour snapping away at the vast number of multicoloured, multi-shaped insects that had been captured overnight. I had never appreciated the sheer numbers and variety of species that could be found in one small area.
So began my love affair with these largely nocturnal creatures. I built my own trap and for the past few years have regularly harmlessly ensnared moths in my garden. It is an intriguing hobby because you just never know what may turn up. Although June and July are peak months for emergence, it truly provides year round interest; in fact several species only emerge during the colder nights of autumn and winter.
I was once asked at a public event why anyone should care about moths. The question momentarily dumbfounded me, not for its banality - we should surely care about all forms of wildlife - but more because I hadn’t thought about their role in the natural world to any depth. Of course the answer is that they form a crucial link in the food chain and are an important source of sustenance for bats and birds; many are pollinators of plants, taking over from day flying bees and butterflies. Additionally, moth larvae are a prime component of the diet of nestling passerines whose parents time their breeding cycle to coincide with maximum availability of these little wrigglers; take moths out of the equation and your local blue tits would disappear pretty sharpish.
To cap it all, they are beautiful in their own right and have such quirky names. Setaceous Hebrew Character springs to mind as a fine example of a Victorian academic’s attempt to bamboozle us lesser mortals. But there are others. We have the Ni Moth for example, then Uncertain, Anomalous and Suspected, which conjures images of bespectacled gentlemen curates scratching their heads and wondering what on earth they had discovered. Merville du Jour adds a continental flavouring and then my personal favourite, the Large Ranunculus which I’m sure was a condition my grandfather had. Certainly a bit more arresting
Setaceous Hebrew Character springs to mind as a fine example of a Victorian academic’s attempt to bamboozle us lesser mortals.
than their butterfly cousins: Large White, Small White, Common Blue etc.
I guess, with nearly 900 macro moths and many more micro moths to be found in the UK, our predecessors ran out of simple names and had to resort to something more flowery. In fact, the common English names of many moths refer to their larval form rather than the adult insect. The elephant hawk moth is a good example, whereby the finished article of largely pink and green looks as much like an elephant as does a giraffe. Stumble upon one of the wrinkled and tapering caterpillars however and you will see the resemblance to an elephant’s trunk.
When you consider the UK has only about 60 resident butterflies, the appeal of moths can begin to be understood. There are simply a heck of a lot more to find. Here in East Anglia, something like 670 macro and over 1,100 micro moths have been recorded and the list is being added to all the time.
My own modest garden list boasts about 250 macro species. If I can discover 250 moth species in my garden then so can you, and the thing is you don’t even know they are there until you look.
It has made me look at moths in a totally different light and has truly opened up a whole new world of exploration. You don’t even need a moth trap and you don’t even need to wait until dark. Many moths fly during the day and many happily flock to a simple lure comprising a length of thin rope soaked liberally in (cheap) red wine and sugar draped across your shrubbery. Alternatively you can simply go into your garden at night with a torch and have a look around the flower heads of buddleia or on fallen fruit - irresistible to some species.
Interested? Get yourself along to a moth trapping event run by your local wildlife trust or the RSPB (details will be on their websites), you will be fascinated by what you find. WARNING: Mothing can be seriously addictive. Don’t say I didn’t tell you....
Elephant hawk moth.
Poplar hawk moth.