Mesmerising Moths

Brimstone (c) Jeff Gorse
Jeff Gorse

Jeff Gorse is a keen wildlife enthusiast and nature photographer who works closely with us in our partnership with Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles. Here, Jeff talks about one of his passions - moths!

 

Summer nights might conjure up images of barbeques, family garden parties and John Travolta / Olivia Newton John duets but for lepidopterists it also means the moth trapping season is in full swing. Until a year or so ago I must admit to giving little thought to these nocturnal fliers however having attending a few moth mornings at such diverse places as Leighton Moss and Mere Sands Wood I have been completely converted to the extent that a full moth-trap on a summer morning brings out the child-at-Christmas in me.

 

At first glance it can be easy to dismiss moths as the poor relation to butterflies, drab insects which emerge at night and cause a nuisance when they are attracted to bathroom and bedroom lights or – even worse – have the temerity to invade your wardrobe to eat clothes. And indeed there is much in common biologically between the two families, but to my mind moths are much the more interesting and beautiful, enhanced by a very real sense of mystery. Many of them are fully as striking as the most gaudy butterfly, and species such as the elephant hawk moth, brimstone and merveille du jour look like they belong at home in the Amazon rainforest and not your average back garden, and some are completely cryptic such as the peppered moth – which famously evolved from white to black during the Industrial Revolution in order to blend in with the soot-stained buildings and trees. Some moths are so small they are best examined with a microscope, others such as the poplar hawk moth are truly whoppers. In total, compared with the 59 British species of butterfly, over 2,500 species of moths call the UK their home – and many of these can be found visiting your back garden, local park or nature reserve.

 

Of course the fact that most moths do only emerge at night poses its challenges in finding them, and this is where moth trapping comes in. Moth trapping doesn’t harm the moth and it is important to ensure they are released safely once they have been examined, but it provides a great way to get up close to these fantastic insects. Like lots of our nature they are very sensitive to the weather and have been confused by the 2018 British spring - ideal conditions are still, dry, cloudy and humid evenings – which have been in short supply so far this year but after a scorching end to May the moth season might finally be up and running. My own moth trap is a Skinner trap – not because it skins them I hasten to add – and it is one of the two ‘standard’ types of light trap. These make use of the moths’ natural and unexplained instinct to be attracted to any light source and consist of a UV light joined to a box filled with empty egg trays. Moths drawn to the light flutter around until they become tired and then drop into the box, where they roost amongst the egg trays and get some shut-eye until you can examine and release them the following morning. Whilst the Skinner and its cousin the Heath trap both come at a cost, moth traps can be made freely and easily for use in your own garden. One suggestion is to hang a white sheet from a washing line and after dark place a torch to shine onto the sheet – moths will be attracted and land on the sheet where they can be examined. Another idea is to make use of the moths’ sweet tooth and either hang strips of fabric or shoelaces, soaked in a combination of red wine and sugar, from a fence or tree branch and see which moths get attracted to them. Even better, plant some night-scented flowers such as tobacco plants, honeysuckle or phlox which will all help draw in hungry moths.

 

Many local parks and nature reserves run moth mornings, for example https://www.facebook.com/events/990062581150397/ where a great variety and number of moths can be seen, but you can find some of the most beautiful and special species in your own garden if you just get out and get looking.