Anyone who has been to a moth trapping evening will testify to the dazzling diversity and incredible beauty of the UK’s moth populations, yet for many people moths remain mysterious and out of reach, allowing the widespread misconceptions about boring brown pests to persist.
This is the prime time of year for moth diversity and after a long spell of warm, settled weather in many parts, moth numbers have built up well. With the annual Moth Night event taking place right now, there’s never been a better time for you to get to grips with moths.
Although British moths have suffered major, long-term declines they still occur very widely from the city centre to the heart of the countryside. Some 2,500 species of moths have been recorded in Britain and it is not unusual to record 100+ species of moth on a single night in good habitat at this time of year.
Yet barriers still remain. Many species are nocturnal of course, so even extremely common, large, colourful moths such as the Elephant Hawk-moth are unknown to most people. Then there’s the issue of identification. With so many moth species in the UK, there are undoubtedly some species that are tricky to identify. However, there are many others that are instantly recognisable and easy to distinguish.
At the end of the day, moths are well worth that bit of effort required to make a start. So here are some tips to help you take the plunge, you won’t regret it!
- Get a moth ID book. Although there are some excellent online resources and apps for moths, it can be a painstaking way to identify the moth you’ve just seen. Good, comprehensive UK field guides to larger moths start from £13.
- Look for moths in the daylight. Hundreds of moth species are either active during the day, at dusk, or can be easily disturbed from grass and other vegetation. Right now, black and crimson Cinnabar moths are still on the wing, while superficially similar burnet moths (e.g. Six-spot Burnet) are emerging. The stunning Scarlet Tiger is also flying now in gardens and beyond and there has been a recent influx of the migratory Humming-bird Hawk-moth. In flower-rich grassland you may be lucky enough to see the Mother Shipton, with its profile of the famous witch’s face on its forewings, the sooty-black Chimney Sweeper or emerald-green Forester moth.
- As well as being easy, one of the really nice things about day-time moth spotting is that you can observe their natural behaviour. For example, watching the lekking behaviour of male Ghost moths, as they hover eerily in meadows at dusk, is a memorable experience. Download our leaflet on day-flying moths.
- There are some stunning day-flying moths, but the majority of moths are nocturnal and the best way to see them is to use light as bait. Most moths are attracted to light, although the scientific basis for this attraction is not clear, and it doesn’t have to be any special kind of light. My porch light is a single, low-energy 11W bulb but attracts a handful of moths during the course of an evening. I’ve recorded 37 moth species at the porch light already this year, including the first Common Lutestring that I’ve had in the garden for five years.
- Leaving the curtains open when the inside lights are on works too, with moths coming to rest on the outside of your window panes. I once spoke to a moth recorder in Highland Scotland who recorded (over a period of years) over 100 species attracted to his kitchen window while he was doing the washing up each evening.
- Perhaps the ultimate incarnation of this passive approach is the ‘bathroom moth-trap’. On a warm summer evening, you turn on the bathroom light, open the window, shut the door and retire until the morning, when you can examine the moths now resting all around the bathroom walls and ceiling. It can be very effective, but it’s best to make sure the rest of the family are happy with your plan and that leaving the window open isn’t a security risk.
- For the ultimate moth experience though, you can’t beat a moth trap. The come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, DIY or commercially produced, but all work by using electric light to lure moths into a box where they settle and can be examined at leisure before being released unharmed. At this time of year, a good night will produce over 50 different species in a moth trap even in an average suburban garden. Over the course of a year, this will equate to three or four hundred species, as different ones fly at different times of year; you’d have to travel round most of Europe to see that many butterfly species! And they attract other wildlife too – ladybirds, hoverflies, shieldbugs and beetles. We found a Lesser Stag Beetle by our garden moth trap last week, which generated great excitement for my children. So, if you can, buy, make or borrow a moth trap and discover the amazing moths that frequent your garden at night. Download an introduction to moth trapping.
- Go to a public moth trapping event. All over the UK, Butterfly Conservation Branches, local moth groups, nature reserve staff and moth enthusiasts run events where people can go along and see moth trapping in action in the company of experts. It is a great introduction to moth trapping and you’ll see lots of fabulous moths. Dozens of such events are taking place on the three nights (3-5 July) of Moth Night 2014 alone, with many more during the summer. Find a Moth Night event near you.
Find out more about moths, moth recording and conservation at www.mothscount.org
Follow me on Twitter: @RichardFoxBC