Watch with Moth-er (Part Two of Two)
Most birders are instinctively drawn to all aspects of nature, even if their primary mission in life is to find / or see as many birds as makes their lives happy and content. However, the listing part of their brain won’t let them past a butterfly or a dragonfly without at least acknowledging that it’s been seen. Most birders note them alongside the birds in their notebooks. However, when the sun begins its final journey of the day and begins to light up other parts of the planet, our UK world is plunged into the velvety blackness of night time…and millions of little alarm clocks go off and the moth world awakes. Unseen and unappreciated by the majority of people and a lot of birders, these butterflies of the night play a vital role as they go about their business. They are pollinators of many species of plants and their larvae provide a rich food source for birds and other wildlife. They are part of our lives. An essential part.
Do you remember as a kid when that big brown moth came in through the open window and your dad whacked it with a newspaper? It was probably a Large Yellow Underwing. Remember your mum getting your school sweater out of the wardrobe only to find it full of holes? It was most likely caused by the larvae of a Brown House Moth. What about coming out in the morning and finding the outside light surrounded by moths…? There are nearly 900 ‘macro’ moths (generally large moths but not always) and over 1600 ‘micro’ moths (generally tiny or small but not in every case) in the UK. The brown jobs are the Lanceolated Warblers of the moth world whereas the brightly coloured species are the Bee-eaters…and there are some really stunning moths!
I began moth trapping in about 1978. I used a 200 watt house lamp fixed above a wooden box with two pieces of glass sloped towards a slit across the middle. It worked but a lot of moths escaped. The only literature was a two-volume works by Richard South, illustrated by painted specimens. Identifying moths was hard work, but thoroughly enjoyable. Myself and Steve Hind did however have the advantage of being able to visit Prof Ian Rutherford who lived in Alderley Edge. He had a museum-type collection of most, if not all, of the British macro moths. Many nights were spent pouring over and discussing moth identification. The old gentlemen was an expert whose knowledge and enthusiasm made us all the more keen to pursue our night-time quarry. Funnily enough neither of us amateurs ever thought about collecting as Ian had done.
So, how do you start? I experimented. A wooden box. A house lamp…then a small fluorescent lamp and eventually a mercury vapour lamp… I learnt all about wavelengths of light and in particular the ultra violet emitted by the lamp. It’s this, not so much the visible light that us humans see, that attracts moths. There are even black lights available, mercury vapour lamps that only emit a weird purple glow. They don’t disturb the neighbours as much as a brilliant dazzling ordinary MV will do. I actually produced state of the art moth traps commercially for a while with a friend. His expertise in plastic forming and computer cutting of high density plastics and my knowledge of traps meant that we produced a brilliant trap. ‘Hawk Moth Traps’ did okay for a while until technical difficulties meant we had to wrap it up. Producing a trap is easy if you have some basic DIY skills. Marine ply, some Perspex, a light source..and you’re away.
Opening your trap is like opening your Christmas presents every day. Moth-er’s who get the bug become obsessed. One birder who took to trapping used to get up at 4 am in summer just to beat the local Blackbird to the trap. Curtains would twitch as his neighbours peeped from darkened rooms as he leapt about the garden in his pyjamas, trying to catch moths as they left the trap. Bizarre! Birds quickly learn that they have an easy food source on their doorstep and will clean up any moths that are resting on the outside of the trap or on the floor or in the nearby bushes. They will even mug you as you examine moths and steal a big juicy one from the egg carton you’ve just put down if they are given the chance. Yummy.
There’s even incidences of moth-rage. A dead ‘Blair’s Mocha’, a rarity in Britain was brought back from Spain and dropped into a trap as a joke. Unfortunately the moth-er took his find too seriously and when he found out it that he’d been duped, went into a tantrum, threatening to throw the prankster and his trap into a stream…Everyone else thought it was really funny!
You can buy several commercially produced traps but they are expensive, around £2-300. It’s relatively simple and a great deal of fun to make your own and it’ll cost relatively little, depending on what you use. I’m making one at the moment. Sourcing the materials has been challenging but I’m almost there.
There are some good identification books out now and identifying moths is satisfying and more-ish. Some species migrate thousands of miles to reach the UK. In Autumn we occasionally get Nearctic species from North America and real rarities. Just as in the birding world there are much sought after species that definitely need underlining… The Holy Grail is a hawk moth, the Oleander Hawk…a real mega. There’s also an excellent website, ‘http://ukmoths.org.uk‘ with photos of most species and another great site, ‘http://www.atropos.info‘ run my moth-ers’ for moth-ers’ and people interested in butterflies and dragonflies. It has an up to date news forum which details catches of rarities and migrants from around the country.
In Cheshire the chances of getting a ‘biggy’ are about the same as in birding….slim. But it does happen from time to time. As in birding, the east coast and south coast migration hotspots score heavily and many bird observatories run moth traps. Portland is famous for its moth trapping as well as birds.
So…give it a go…nick the blue fluorescent tube out of the fish tank, get a big cardboard box, some clear plastic sheeting and see what you get… but be warned…it’s highly addictive! To download diagram right-click and ‘save as’.
Images: Large Yellow Underwing, Oleander Hawk Moth, Blair’s Mocha
Image: Old Lady Moth (WSM).