The UK has about 2,500 moth species and their sheer diversity, in terms of their colour, size, form, pattern and intricacy of markings, and their varied and often remarkable ecology, is nothing short of astonishing.
Take the bizarrely named goat moth for example. Like all moths and butterflies, it has egg, larval and pupal stages. However, amazingly its caterpillar, or larva, overwinters for several years before emerging to spend a comparatively brief couple of months as an adult. But why goat moth? Well, the caterpillars are said to smell of goats!
Interestingly, several of our moths are named after their caterpillars: the lobster moth and the elephant hawk-moth are good examples. They are reminders of a time before modern light traps made it easier to find the adults and searching out larvae was the main means of recording moths.
Light traps, where ultra violet electric light bulbs are used to attract moths, make it possible to record and enjoy (and release unharmed) night flying moths that would otherwise be very difficult to find.
But not all moths are night flyers. Several species are diurnal and fly mainly during the day. One of the most common day flying moths you may see is the stunning Six-Spot Burnet. These are beautiful insects but are poisonous to anything wanting to eat it. Like butterflies a lot of moths drink the sugary nectar from flowers and feed on sweet tree sap.
Unfortunately, like butterflies, moths have suffered a widespread decline. Ultimately this highlights wider environmental damage caused by our impact on the natural world. Moths play vital roles within food chains, being food for birds, bats and mammals and important pollinators of plants. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation caused by urbanisation and intensive agriculture are linked closely to the decline. But while we have lost around 40% of our total moths, since 2000 we have gained several dozen new moth species, colonising over from the continent.
Now is a good time of year to start finding moths. One of the easiest ways to see them in your garden is to use a standard light bulb or strip light shining onto a white sheet hanging from two trees or a washing line. Different species fly at different times in the night but you will start to see things around your light or landing on the sheet from the moment the sun sets. You’ll be amazed at how many moths of different colours and shapes you attract in the smallest of urban gardens.