Of Tigers, Elephants and Old Ladys

Moths are subjects that seem 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). I questioned her once as to why this should be and it seems that when she was a small child a moth flew into her room one night and with its manic fluttering traumatised her to such an extent that she exhibits this extreme aversion. She loves butterflies though.

Sadly this otherwise well balanced lady is not alone in exhibiting extreme prejudice against moths; it must be the association with the mysteries of the dark hours when all things evil stalk our suburbs. I've read more than one short horror story where a moth, usually of gigantic proportions, has been the focus of the tale. In fact as I recall they all seem to involve some poor schmuck being smothered in his bed by the crazed insect, so maybe my friend's childhood experience is attuned to this primitive fear. What total crap though, I mean honestly they're harmless nectar sucking insects for goodness sake. Get a grip I say. In any event moths really do seem to get a totally unjustified bad press. Thank goodness then that we're above all of this tomfoolery and are here to celebrate the diversity of the natural world.

A few years ago one of my morning shifts working in Reception at Strumpshaw Fen 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 multi coloured and multi shaped insects that had been captured overnight. I had simply never appreciated the sheer numbers and variety of species that could be found in one area. So began my love affair with these largely nocturnal creatures, one that endures to this day. I built my own trap and for the past 8 years or so have regularly, harmlessly ensnared moths in my garden at Sprowston as well as sometimes helping with the monitoring of moths at Mousehold Heath and running moth events for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is an addictive hobby simply because you just never know what may turn up. On occasion Ive been so consumed with curiosity that I've been known to pay close scrutiny to the walls of concrete toilet blocks....but luckily got off with just a warning.

The Strumpshaw Moth Trap -My induction to an absorbing pastime 

Garden Tiger - One of the moths that entranced me

I tend to leave my trap on overnight, which does necessitate some very early awakenings during summer to close it down and move it to a safe place before the local blackbirds and robins discover a free breakfast. However, the excitement of having a good relaxed rummage through the empty egg cartons later in the day with a nice cup of tea within easy grasp, is ample compensation for an interrupted slumber; the sight of a dozen large and hulking hawk moths never fails to impress. And it is truly a year round hobby; in fact several species only emerge during the colder nights of autumn and winter. Some Continental migrants, which include real beasts like the convolvulus and deaths head hawk moths, will be arriving now and through October if were lucky.

I was once asked at a public event by a grown man that should have known better why anyone should care about moths, his tone implying that surely it wouldn't matter if they didn't exist. The question momentarily dumbfounded me, not for its banality - we should surely all care about all forms of wildlife - but more for the fact 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; the larvae also form hosts for parasitic wasps. 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.

Hornet Moth

An amazing example of mimicry. This species looks very like a
hornet thus ensuring predators give it a wide berth. The small
eyes, long antennae and mottled wings give it away. 

Buff Tip

An example of cryptic camouflage - the front end looks uncannily like the
broken end of a birch twig. 

Buff Tip Caterpillars at Whitlingham Recently

Leopard Moth

Another strategy to avoid predation is to play dead. This one rolled up and
collapsed in a heap when I touched it.

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 academics attempt to bamboozle us lesser mortals, whilst finding favour with muckers in his club. But there are others. We have the Ni Moth (the nights of Ni?) for example, then Uncertain, Anomalous and Suspected which conjures images of bespectacled gentlemen curates scratching their heads and wondering what the hell they had discovered. Merville du Jour adds a Continental flavouring and then my favourite, the Large Ranunculus, which Im sure was a condition my grandfather had. Aren't they great? Certainly a bit more arresting than their butterfly cousins: large white, small white, common blue etc. Still, 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 rather to their larval form rather than the adult insect. The elephant hawk moth is a good example of this anomaly 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 immediately see the resemblance to an elephant's trunk. I discovered one of these quite large caterpillars shuffling across the boardwalk at Ranworth one late summer day whilst I was managing the Visitor Centre there. Rather than leave it for someone to squash, I temporarily put it on public display. For the rest of the afternoon this digestive tube entertained numerous kids and adults who had probably never seen such a thing before. Nothing like a bit of real live nature to get people hooked.


Setaceous Hebrew Character

Can you see why it is so called? Nope neither can I.

Merville du Jour

A prized autumn speciality

Large Ranunculus

Other hawk moth larvae were frequently the subject of great concern to members of the public who found them garishly occupying their favoured spot on the patio. Us folk manning the NWT Wildline regularly administered consoling words, reassuring the trembling caller that the fearsome looking protuberance was not a sting and to stand down the emergency services. To their great credit these callers were actually simply astonished to see something so alien in their environs and wanted to know what on earth it was. Perhaps a stark reminder of how scarce these things have become nowadays and/or how detached people are from the natural world around them. In any event it goes to illustrate another surprisingly attractive element of the overall lifecycle of moths.
When you consider the UK has only about 60 resident butterflies, the appeal of moths can begin to be understood. There is simply a heck of a lot more to find. Here in Norfolk something like 670 macro and over 1100 micro moths have been found and the list is being added to all the time thanks to the efforts of amateur recorders trapping in their gardens and submitting records. My own modest garden list boasts about 250 macros and there are also some micros, but truth be told their identification is a time consuming occupation and most only have Latin names which makes me go cross-eyed. If I can discover 250 moth species in my garden then so can you, and the thing is you dont even know they are there until you look.

All of this has made me look at moths in a totally different light and has truly opened up a whole new world of exploration. You dont even need a moth trap and you dont 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 red wine and sugar draped across your shrubbery (who wouldnt). Alternatively, you can simply go out into your garden at night with a torch and have a look around the flower heads of buddleia, or on fallen fruit which is irresistible to some species.

Old Lady

These large and impressive moths are easily lured to wine ropes. 


This one was attracted to a thick mixture of molasses, dark sugar and a dash
of rum liberally painted on the garden fence. Just remember not to lean against
it the next day.

Sugar Feast!

Various moths tucking into the gunk mentioned above

Large Yellow Underwing

These moths and many others are attracted to buddleia at night in much the same
way as butterflies are during the day.

Six-spot Burnets

Day flying moths that can be very numerous

Red Underwing

What a beauty - flushed from riverside vegetation at Cantley last week
If you get a chance I would get yourself along to a moth trapping event next summer, you will be genuinely surprised and fascinated by what you find. Have a look at the NWT website to keep abreast of events they run. And because they are simply stunning a few more hawk moth pics....

Lime Hawk Moth

Poplar Hawk Moth

Privet Hawk Moth



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