Ex­plor­ing the much-ma­ligned moths in the UK

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

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.

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