Magical moths

Small Elephant Hawkmoth, by Bob Chapman
Small Elephant Hawkmoth, by Bob Chapman
The old radar station at Fraser Range, Eastney Picture: Shaun Roster

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MOTHS are often described as the dull cousins of colourful butterflies, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The UK has about 2,500 moth species and their sheer diversity, in terms of their colour, size, form, pattern and intricacy of markings, and their varied and often remarkable ecology, is nothing short of astonishing.

Cinnabar Moth, by Isabel Carrahar

Cinnabar Moth, by Isabel Carrahar

Take the bizarrely named goat moth for example. Like all moths and butterflies, it has egg, larval and pupal stages. However, amazingly its caterpillar, or larva, overwinters for several years before emerging to spend a comparatively brief couple of months as an adult.

Locally, this nationally-scarce species is found in the New Forest. But why goat moth? Well, the caterpillars are said to smell of goats!

Interestingly, several of our moths are named after their caterpillars: the lobster moth and the elephant hawk-moth are good examples.

They are reminders of a time before modern light traps made it easier to find the adults and searching out larvae was the main means of recording moths.

angle shades, Dibden Purlieu, Bob Chapman,  4th October 2015

angle shades, Dibden Purlieu, Bob Chapman, 4th October 2015

Light traps, where ultra violet electric light bulbs are used to attract moths, make it possible to record and enjoy (and release unharmed) night-flying moths that would otherwise be difficult to find.

But not all moths are night flyers. Several species are diurnal and fly mainly during the day.

One of the most common day-flying moths you may see is the stunning Six-Spot Burnet. These are beautiful insects but poisonous to anything wanting to eat it.

Like butterflies a lot of moths drink the sugary nectar from flowers and feed on sweet tree sap.

Unfortunately, like butterflies, moths have suffered a widespread decline. Ultimately this highlights wider environmental damage caused by our impact on the natural world.

Moths play vital roles within food chains, being food for birds, bats and mammals and being an important pollinator of plants. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation caused by urbanisation and intensive agriculture are linked closely to the decline. But while we have lost about 40 per cent of our total moths, since 2000 we have gained several dozen new species, colonising from the continent.

Now is a good time of year to start finding moths.

One of the easiest ways to see them in your garden is to use a standard light bulb or strip light shining onto a white sheet hanging from two trees or a washing line. Different species fly at different times in the night but you will start to see things around your light or landing on the sheet from the moment the sun sets. You’ll be amazed at how many moths of different colours and shapes you attract in the smallest of urban gardens.

Cinnabar moth (right, bottom) – if you’re out on a sunny day and notice what you think is a pretty red and black butterfly it is actually the Cinnabar moth. The bright colouring of the adults and caterpillars warns predators they are unpalatable, having ingested poisonous ragwort plants.

Elephant hawkmoth – one of our most brightly coloured moths named after their large caterpillars which resemble trunks. Also look for the very similar small elephant hawkmoth (above, top) which has different wing and body patterns. Drawn to light traps and visits honeysuckle at dusk.

Angle shades (right, middle) – often mistaken for a dead leaf, it can be found across the UK all year. Its main flight season is May to October where our resident population may be joined by migrants from the continent. Drawn to light traps and can be found overwintering.