Spring is the perfect time of year to start paying more attention to our magnificent moths. There are far more spring moths around than butterflies, so there is plenty of interest, but the variety and numbers have not yet built up to the sometimes dizzying diversity of summertime moth watching.
Dipping your toe in the world of moths has never been easier. There are fantastic websites, apps and field guides to help with moth identification and many parts of the UK have active local groups of moth enthusiasts willing to encourage your interest.
Most people start by getting a moth trap – a light to attract moths mounted on a box to retain them unharmed. You might even be able to borrow one from your local Butterfly Conservation Branch or moth group. Just put the trap in the garden overnight and enjoy the excitement in the morning when you see what you’ve caught. Moth traps are great, but you don’t need one to enjoy moths. Many are active in the daytime, while nocturnal moths may also be attracted to lighted windows or outside lights.
Once you’ve found a moth, identifying it can be challenging if you are new to the hobby, but don’t fret, help is at hand. Post your moth images on Butterfly Conservation’s Facebook page or tag us on Twitter or Instagram and we’ll try to assist. Also, you can get a list of the moths most likely to be flying in your area at this time of year using the What’s Flying Tonight app on your computer, tablet or smartphone.
Here are some marvellous moths to look out for in spring:
With its delta wing-shape and patterning of green, brown and white, the Oak Beauty is often jokingly likened to the iconic Vulcan bomber plane. Its caterpillars feed on the leaves of oaks and other trees and the moth occurs in woodland, gardens, parks and along hedgerows.
This stripy moth is widespread and common in most parts of the UK and is on the wing from now until the end of May. Dog rose and other wild roses are the foodplants for caterpillars of this moth, although they are unobtrusive and won’t cause any noticeable damage, so the species can be found in gardens, hedgerows and woodland.
This distinctive micro-moth lives in oak trees and is regularly seen in gardens as well as in woodland. Despite its diminutive size, this moth hibernates as an adult and emerges from late winter onwards, when it can be attracted to moth-traps and outside lights. Typically a lovely blue-green colour, the detail of the moth’s appearance is very variable – some individuals have strongly defined black markings on the wings while others are almost plain, and the wings sometimes have a rough texture caused by tiny tufts of scales.
If there are pine trees nearby, you have a chance of seeing this beautiful, orange-red moth which flies from late February until the beginning of summer. Thanks to its colours and patterns, the moth blends in perfectly as it rests among the buds of the pine trees. Contrary to the general decline of UK moths, the Pine Beauty has done well over recent decades, increasing in numbers as a result of pine trees being planted for timber production and as ornamental plants in gardens.
When at rest the Red Sword-grass is brilliantly camouflaged as a bit of wood. Indeed its scientific name Xylena vetusta means ‘old wood’. It is a widespread species in northern and western parts of the UK, but is capable of long-distance flights so can turn up anywhere. Red Sword-grass moths hibernate through the winter, starting to emerge in March. The moths visit early blossom such as sallow to drink nectar as well as feeding on the sap of birches.
Towards the end of March and into April, one of the most spectacular of the UK’s moths will be on the wing. The Emperor Moth, with its 8cm wingspan and eyespot patterns not unlike those on the Peacock butterfly, occurs in open countryside, such as heaths and moors. The male flies in the daytime, so keep a lookout for fast-flying orangey insects if you are on a sunny walk.
Associate Director Recording and Research, Butterfly Conservation
Follow me on Twitter: @RichardFoxBC