Attracted to the light

Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar © David Kilbey

Moths are fascinating creatures. We mostly think of them as the butterflies of the night, and therefore overlook them, but some species can be seen during the daytime, too. They play a vital role in our ecosystems.

We have around 2500 different species of moth in the UK but sadly they are in decline.  Studies have shown that the overall abundance of larger moths in southern Britain fell by as much as 40% during the period from the 1960s to the early 2000s. As with many of our other insects they are suffering due to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and degradation, often as a result of urbanisation or agricultural intensification.

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Identifying moths, or any species for that matter, has never been easier. There are so many free apps and online field guides to help you in your new zoological hobbies. You can get a list of what moths are most likely to be seen in your area at this time of year by going to the What's Flying Tonight website.

Between 1960 and 2000, moths in southern Britain fell by 40%

Moths play a vital role in the food chain, feeding other species such as bats, in addition to pollinating a range of plants.

Moths don’t just fly at night
St Lawrence Field six spotted burnet moth

St Lawrence Field six spotted burnet moth

Some species are diurnal, meaning that they fly during the day. Two of the more common and obvious day flying moths are the 6-spot burnet moth and the cinnabar moth. Both are red and black and very striking. This particular burnet moth has 6 red spots on a black background and the adult tends to favour feeding on the flowers of knapweed and thistles. This moth will be flying between June and August. The cinnabar moth, also red and black, has 2 red spots and 2 red stripes along the forewings. The caterpillars of this species are the black and yellow banded caterpillars that you see feeding on ragwort. These bright colours warn predators that they are unpalatable having consumed the poisonous ragwort leaves.

Cinnabar moth caterpillar

Cinnabar moth caterpillar © Susan Simmonds

Another interesting daytime sighting that you may come across at the moment are the caterpillars of the ermine moths. You may have noticed sections of hedgerow becoming encased within webs. This is due to several species of ermine moth, including the spindle ermine moth. If you look closely at these webs, you'll notice lots of caterpillars feeding on the leaves of the bushes within the webs. This is an evolutionary strategy to protect these larvae whilst they are feeding.  They will tend to cover blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle or cherry from May to June. The adults will fly later in the summer. These are harmless but there are several other web forming larvae which do have irritating hairs so it's best not to touch any of them.

Ermine moth caterpillars

Ermine moth caterpillars © Susan Simmonds

Most of our moths do fly at night. However, it's not too difficult to set up a simple light trap, using a camping light and a white sheet, to observe the huge variety of colours and shapes within the local moth world.

I've seen several night flying species lately including the angle shades moth which resembles a dead leaf. The adults feed on the flowers of common reed and several other grasses.  I've also seen the rather beautiful small magpie moth, with its distinctive black and white wing markings and yellow tinged body. This species flies between May and September.

Magpie moth

Magpie moth © Susan Simmonds

If you'd like to attract moths into your garden, then it's worth thinking about providing larval food plants as well as nectar bearing plants for the adults. Many native trees and shrubs, such as willow and birch, are fed upon by moth caterpillars. In addition, many fruit bushes, honeysuckle and ivy are also important larval food plants for moths. Other plants include foxgloves, primrose and thyme. Dark mullein is the larval food plant for the nationally scarce striped lychnis moth so if you have this plant in your garden, do have a look for these distinctively coloured caterpillars in July.

In terms of nectar for the adult moths, it's a good idea to provide a range of species throughout the seasons. There are many good spring nectar bearing plants including; bluebells, clover, cuckooflower, dandelion and primrose. Later in the summer, plants such as; knapweed, lavender, marjoram, scabious and thyme would all be good. It's also worth considering planting some night scented flowers such as jasmine, honeysuckle and evening primrose.

Native species are often essential for the larvae but that's not necessarily the case for the nectar bearing plants. Overall, though, a greater diversity of plants in the garden will offer habitat for a greater variety of moth species and indeed other wildlife.

Read more about attracting moths to your garden

White-tailed bumblebee on honeysuckle

White-tailed Bumblebee on Honeysuckle - David Tipling/2020VISION

Blashford Wild Days Out Bioblitz Bush cricket

Blashford Wild Days Out Bioblitz Bush cricket © T Standish

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