Monday, 28 August 2017

100 Moths and Butterflies in my garden

At the beginning of August I bought a Robinson Moth Trap and re-engaged with a childhood passion for moths.  The traps are the same design as they were in the 1960s; a circular box under powerful 150 watt Mercury vapour light. 

The moths slip down a funnel and settle on egg trays inside the trap. It is estimated that the average British Garden has about 500 species of moths and butterflies, in less than a month I have already built up a list of over 100 species.

On the first night of operation, 2nd August, I caught an Elephant hawk moth.  These huge moths are the colour of Willow-herb flowers

Elephant Hawk-moth

and have caterpillars that look like elephants.


The Hawkmoths are Britain's biggest and most spectacular family of moths, they were made famous by the film Silence of the Lambs which used an image of a Deaths Head Hawk-moth.

The Deaths Head Hawk-moth image : twitter

I have heard that the Death Head moths squeak when handled however they are very rare visitors to Pembrokeshire and you would be very lucky to find one in your garden.  Your garden probably hosts some other spectacular hawkmoths, about a week ago I caught this newly emerged Poplar hawkmoth.  My picture does not show the beautiful red ochre on its underwings that it flashes when disturbed.  Many moths have colourful underwings.

Poplar Hawk-moth
Some indigenous hawkmoth species are not found in the autumn but it is not too late to see the Convolulus Hawk-moths that have been flying in from Europe and North Africa.  Last week specimens were caught in moth traps on Skomer island and at St Ishmaels.  

Convolulus Hawk-moth image: Norfolk Moths
At this time of year it is common to see another immigrant species, the little Hummingbird hawkmoths which are day flying and behave like hummingbirds, hovering from flower to flower sipping nectar as they go.  They love lavender and might almost be mistaken for bumblebees.

Hummingbird hawk-moth (photo Wikipedia)
In Britain we have about 60 species of butterflies and 2,500 species of moths. I have always thought our moths are more beautiful and more interesting than our butterflies, perhaps it is simply that there is a wider choice.    The Ruby Tiger was another moth I caught on my first night, they are as charming as their name suggests

Ruby Tiger; pic UK moths

Tiger moths have furry caterpillars called Woolly Bears, the large flamboyant Garden Tiger Moth is one of our most common tiger moth.  I have not caught one in my trap yet but I know they are here because I have seen their caterpillars.

Garden Tiger Moth

The Victorians did a wonderful job differentiating the species that often look very similar, their task was made harder by the huge variations of wing patterns that often overlap with other species. The early lepidopterists made huge collections of butterflies and moths and some British species of butterflies were wiped out by over-enthusiastic butterfly collectors.  When I was a boy in the 1960s moth collecting was an unusual and solitary hobby, I taught myself to set my moths on boards and keep a collection of the different species, but I was not good at it and I had no contact with other lepidopterists who could have helped me.    It has been a big surprise to discover how the internet has made the hobby modern, social and easy.     Today's books have higher definition pictures and pictures of moths in resting positions as well as with their wings out, today's lepidopterists have a camera out by their traps and keep records of the unusual moths they catch.  If we still cannot identify a species we can ask advice by posting our often bad photographs on twitter and forums, it all happens very smoothly in real time.  A lot of the delight is in sharing our images and reading news of the most beautiful species around.  This mothly beauty comes in so many different forms; for instance take this Blood Vein that was settled on a leaf next to my trap

Blood Vein Timandra comae

The Blood Vein are about the size of a 10p piece and they look as if they are made of delicate translucent lustred paper.

One of my favourite groups are the Carpets, their wings are patterned with very subtle pallets of colours.  This moth, which is small than a Blood Vein, is a Flame Carpet.

Flame Carpet Xanthorhoe briviata

 Another common Carpet are the Small Phoenix

Small Phoenix Ecliptopera silaceata caught at Lampeter Velfrey
Last night I caught a Green Carpet, they are a very common.

Green Carpet pic: Badbury Rings | Dorset Butterflies
The moths just go on getting smaller and smaller.  At school I took no interest in "micros", I had no books and they were too small.  Modern cameras have changed all that, using super-macro auto focus it is possible to capture their extraordinary beauty and architecture in great detail.  This one was under a Centimetre long and looked like Concord.

Agriphila straminella
The Tortrix  are a big family, they usually mimic bird dropping, like this Garden Rose Tortrix

Garden Rose Tortrix Acleris variegana pic:

The micros are harder to identify and have difficult to remember Latin names, this adds an extra level to the challenge.  The lepidoptera blogs are full of conversations between fully committed enthusiasts about these tiny creatures.  The conversations turn on how they hold their wings, food plants, when they were last recorded in the area and their peculiar lifecycles, and there is humour.   This comment appeared on the  Pembrokeshire Moth New Forum: "Argyresthia geodartella....a tiny little beast which spends most of it's life trying to do a headstand."

Argyresthia geodartella

The plumes are amongst the most noticeable and prettiest micros, they have wings like tiny feathers.

White Plume Moth Pterophorus pentadactyla - pic UKmoths
The caterpillars of the White Plume feed on bindweed. My dyslexia and time restraints prevent me from getting too involved with micros.

As you will have noticed the Victorians were very good at naming the moths. The Thorns are orangey with scalloped wings that they hold up like a butterfly, there are Early Thorns, August Thorns, September Thorns, Large Thorns, Purple Thorns, and of course the Canary Shouldered Thorn.  This Thorn is exactly as described

Canary Shouldered Thorn Ennomos alnaria
Another aptly name moth is "the Snout"  

The Snout Hypena proboscidalis pic

Some moths are so soft that they look like pussy cats or kittens, so it is natural that we call them Puss moths and  Kittens.  I caught this Sallow Kitten a few nights ago

Sallow Kitten Furcula furcula Lampeter Velfrey Aug 2017
Colour is important, we call these moths Emeralds

and others get their names from characteristic markings, famously one moth is called "the Setacious Hebrew Character" and another is the Spectacle moth which looks back at us through glasses

Spectacle moth Abrostolata tripartita  pic:
and other moths have marking that remind us of flowers, yesterday I caught a Peach Blossom moth

Peach Blossom Moth Thyatira batis
there is the shape, like this majestic Oak Hook Tip

Oak Hook-tip, Watsonalla binaria
a common visitor is the Pale Prominent which look like a bit of old twig

Pale Prominent Pterostoma palpina pic David Fenwick

Taking an interest in moths is inexpensive and opens our eyes to a wonderful world of creatures that we almost do not notice living in our gardens. It is an interest that stimulates ever deeper interaction with nature, soon we find ourselves looking more closely at the other insects and find a variety of exotic species we hardly ever noticed before, like these harmless scorpion flies that are all over our gardens just now.  

Scorpion Fly  pic

An interest in moths is about science and beauty, it connects with our past and it helps us monitor our environment for future generations, but most of all it is all engrossing, rewarding and spiritually worthwhile.


Pembrokeshire Moth News :

Ceredigian Moths

Glamorgan Moth Group

Entomological Equipment

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