Magical Moths

Moth Light Trap © Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Moths are often described as the dull cousins of colourful butterflies, but nothing could be further from the truth.

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.

Cinnabar and sharp-angled peacock moth in trap at Blashford Lakes

© Jo Armson

Cinnabar moth - If you're out and about on a nice sunny day and notice what you think is a pretty red and black butterfly it is actually the Cinnabar moth. The bright colouring of the adults and caterpillars warns predators that they are unpalatable, having ingested the poisonous ragwort plants.

Elephant hawk moth at Blashford Lakes © Bob Chapman

Elephant hawk moth at Blashford Lakes © Bob Chapman

Elephant hawkmoth - One of our most brightly coloured moths, they are named for their large caterpillars which resemble trunks. Also look out for the very similar small elephant hawkmoth which has different wing and body patterns. Drawn to light traps and can be seen visiting honeysuckle at dusk.

angle shades

Angle shades - Often mistaken for a dead leaf, this moth can be found across the UK all year round. Its main flight season is May to October where our resident population may be joined by migrants from the continent.  Drawn to light traps and can be found overwintering.