OF MOTHS AND MEN
Exploring the much-maligned moths in the UK
Moths have a bad rep. One might be forgiven for assuming they were all drab clothesmunching wardrobe haunters. Fluttering, frightening fly-by-nights of no particular interest. But for those who take the time to learn, there’s a fount of fascination to be found in the world of moths.
I promise: if you like butterflies, then you’ll love moths. It can be tricky to tell them apart for one thing; there’s no hard and fast rule. Folk wisdom holds that butterflies appear during the day, and moths at night – but there are over a hundred diurnal (daytime) moths.
Any assumption that butterflies are more brightly coloured falls down the moment you stumble across one of the emerald moth family, who are just as vivid a shade as the name suggests, with scalloped detailing picked out in white. Or one of the burnets, with their scarlet velvet spots upon a sleek bottle green backdrop. Or one of the tiger moths, mottled black-brown and cream up top, and black-brown and orange or yellow below.
Generally speaking, butterflies have club-shaped antennae while moths have feathery or comb-like ones, but there are many exceptions. Both emerge from pupae – butterflies generally from hard chrysalises, while moths can emerge from silken cocoons, chrysalises buried underground, hidden in bark or folded leaves. And most (but not all) moths have a ‘frenulum’ connecting their fore-wings and rear-wings.
So it’s complicated. The best rule of division in lepidoptery is perhaps the
We all love butterflies, but we hate moths. Cal Flyn reveals that there’s far more to the lesser-loved flying insect that we thought – and they’re not just there to chomp on our clothes
simplest: ‘If it’s not a butterfly, it’s a moth’, which may explain why there are so many of them. A whopping 2,500 species of moth can be found in the British Isles, compared to just 59 butterflies.
Identification can be difficult, especially of the ‘micro’ moths, which are numerous and Lilliputian. But the attempt is a delight: the gathering and discarding of one evocative suggestion after another, each one more lyrical than the last. Is it a smoky wave? A satin beauty? A scarce tissue? A phoenix? A flounced rustic? A clouded brindle? A true-lovers knot?
No surprise, perhaps, that lepidopterists, though few in number,
Above: Large emerald moth.
Below left: Twentyplume Moth, Alucita hexadactyla at rest on a twig covered in Xanthoria parietina lichen. Below right:
Small Elephant Hawk-moth.
“The simplest rule of lepidoptery is: ‘If it’s not a butterfly, it’s a moth’
re ardent in their admiration. The author Vladimira Nabokov numbered among them and carried a gold-handled net on his exhaustive tours of North America in search of new species. Had there been no revolution in Russia, he said once, ‘it is not improbable that [he] would have devoted [himself] entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all’.
And why not? The catching of moths is a dark art all its own. In his memoirs, Nabokov recalled his evenings spent in their pursuit with dewy-eyed pleasure. ‘One’s lantern would illuminate the stickily glistening furrows of the bark and two or three large moths upon it imbibing the sweets, their nervous wings half open butterfly fashion, the lower ones exhibiting their incredibly
crimson silk form beneath the lichen-gray primaries,’ he wrote.
There he describes a technique known as ‘sugaring’, although there are other methods: one might produce a small rubber bung, impregnated with pheromones, and summon all the nearby individuals of a particular species to your hand in a cloud. Or one might go ‘torching’ – that is, simply wandering the fields or woodland after dark to see what’s resting on tree trunks or feeding in the flowers. The antler moth, for example, a striking moth marked with silver and gold, can commonly be found on ragwort; while buddleia, so attractive during the day to butterflies, has a myriad of moth devotees at night. More usually, however, one employs a moth trap attached to a powerful light source.
In August this year, I joined Reuben Singleton, the county moth recorder for Peeblesshire, for an evening of moth trapping in the Manor Valley. Gathering with a small group of local enthusiasts at dusk, we set up his trap: a ‘Robinson’ style trap (that is, a circular container, with a funnel-shaped hole in its lid, above which a mercury-vapour bulb burns brightly) placed atop a white sheet. All the better for spotting the stragglers who don’t quite make it inside.
The idea is that the moths are attracted to the bulb, then in all their fluttering confusion fall through the funnel into the container, and are not able to find their way out. Not unlike a lobster creel. Inside the container they are perfectly safe – in fact, it’s packed with empty egg boxes, in which they can find safe and comfortable nooks in which to nestle overnight. Come the morning, they should be chilled and sleepy, and easy to handle.
“One might wander after dark to see what’s resting on tree trunks or feeding in flowers
Reuben was introduced to moths by the late, great lepidopterist Eric Classey, who lived close to him in Gloucestershire and took the keen schoolboy under his wing. Today, Reuben runs the environmental consultancy Tweed Ecology (tweedecology.co.uk) and maintains an avid interest in all aspects of natural history – although moths hold a special place in his heart.
Partly, he says, it’s the way they herald the changing of the seasons. The spoils of the moth trap offer a rich and constantly changing array of life that varies as we move from early spring to late spring, and again as we pass into early summer, the midsummer, and late summer, and so on. ‘The sheer biodiversity is life affirming,’ he says.
Moths might be found on the wing every month of the year, he assures me. Even now, as we approach midwinter, there are some. I look them up later, and find their names appropriately hibernal: the December moth, the winter moth, the mottled umber, the satellite, the pale brindled beauty. On milder days, the twenty-plume moth, a micro with wings of taupe and fan-like fronds, might be stirred from its winter slumber in conservatories or outbuildings, while the Brussels lace caterpillar might be spotted overwintering in its foodstuff – foliose lichen – with which it, being of mintgreen filigree, blends perfectly.
Such cryptic species ‘are incredible products of evolution’, notes Reuben. He draws my attention to midsummer’s buff tip, which when at rest appears as a twig of silver birch, and the scorched wing, which resembles a sycamore helicopter seed.
Other than that, it’s difficult to pick favourites, ‘but as for sheer beauty and the fact that I still see them regularly, the garden tiger, elephant hawk-moth [pink and olive green, all angles] and merveilledu-jour [densely embroidered in pistachio, white and black] take some beating’, he says. The most common finds in his area are the large yellow underwing and the antler moth; earlier this year, he trapped 523 of the latter over a single night in one trap.
This might, he warns, be a portent of things to come. Antler moths have been known to descend upon the region in plague-like proportions. The last time they did so, in 1992, millions of caterpillars invaded six farms in the Borders and destroyed more than 3,000 acres of grass. It was, says Reuben, ‘like a tide sweeping the face of the hill’ – green in front and brown behind. The crisis was only averted when 30,000 blackheaded gulls from the colony at Bemersyde Moss arrived en masse. The hill quickly became white with the bodies of the birds, and the caterpillars were gone within days.
Scary stories for a night around the campfire. Or a moth trap will do. Tiny insects swirl above, uplit, like cinders. A tawny owl cries out from the woods behind. Bats flash by in the edges of my eye line.
It’s late. But just before I turn in, a welcome visitor: a canary shouldered thorn. Canary yellow with dusty amber wings, space-alien eyes and comb-like antennae swept back in a quiff, he makes for a stylish gentleman caller. I paid my regards, and then was off. I’d be back in the morning when the treasure chest would be opened.
Above: The Scarce Merveille du Jour is indigenous to Scotland (as are all the moths pictured here).
Clockwise from top left: Garden Tiger Moth; Pair of buff-tip moths on stick; Antler moth; Phoenix Moth camouflaged on rock; Canaryshouldered Thorn moth.
Right: The larva or caterpillar of Geometer winter moth.