Look out for: Don’t forget the moths


In spite of the name, we’re asking people to look out for two day-flying moths as part of Big Butterfly Count 2013.

One is the spectacular Six-spot Burnet moth. With its bright crimson hindwings and glossy black forewings studded with crimson spots, the Six-spot Burnet easily holds its own in the glamour stakes among the butterflies in a summer meadow. Its bold colours serve as a warning to would-be predators, because Six-spot Burnets can produce cyanide from any wounds inflicted. These patterns also allow human observers to identify the moth. It is distinguished from other UK burnet moths by three pairs of spots on each forewing, although the pair nearest to the body is often merged into a single blotch. They are voracious nectar-feeders, preferring purple flowers such as knapweeds and thistles, on which several moths can often be seen at once.

Found in most parts of the UK in flowery grassland, including meadows, coastlines, downland, verges and woodland clearings, Six-spot Burnet numbers appear to have increased in the last few years. The species has steadily risen up the Big Butterfly Count results chart from 13th position in 2010 to 6th last year. It was one of the few species to do well during Big Butterfly Count 2012, with numbers up by over 50% compared with 2011. How will it fare in 2013?

The other moth to look out for is the Silver Y. Active both by day and at night, the Silver Y is an extraordinary traveller, migrating northwards from southern Europe to arrive, often in its millions, in the UK during the early summer. Named after the upside-down letter ‘y’ seemingly etched in silver on its forewing, the moths are busy visitors to flowers on sunny days in gardens and other habitats.

Unlike the Six-spot Burnet which typically sits on flowers while feeding, Silver Y moths normally hover while drinking nectar through its long proboscis.

Although a common moth, this is often the least reported species of the 21 covered by Big Butterfly Count. Perhaps 2013 will see an improvement in its results, as many were seen in the UK earlier this summer. Identification may be a bit tricky, another reason why its Counts might be low, but look for a greyish moth, bumbling about, with rapid wingbeats, close to flowers. When disturbed, the moth will often drop into the vegetation allowing a closer inspection to confirm the ‘silver y’ wing marking.

Richard Fox

Surveys Manager

Follow me on Twitter: @RichardFoxBC