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.

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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.

Leop­ard moth.

Hor­net moth.

Large ra­nun­cu­lus.

Sil­ver Y.

Privet hawk-moth.

Po­plar hawk moth.

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