Britain’s moths enjoy their moment in the spotlight

Small brown hairy things that thrive after dark cannot expect to be loved. And when some of them nibble your best cashmere and munch through the allotment’s crops, their reputation might seem hopelessly lost.

Yet the moths of the United Kingdom are savouring their first real experience of public interest, and even approval, after years playing Cinderella to their dainty and brightly coloured daytime relatives, butterflies.

National Moth Night is now so popular, after just over a decade, that its organisers have had to take a year out to relaunch systems capable of managing thousands of eager recorders, including droves of easily disappointed children. The moth trap at Buckingham Palace, whose records include at least one exotic insect imported in the baggage of an African state visit, has been joined by counterparts at the Royal Courts of Justice, the House of Commons and a ring of coastal monitoring stations.

“People are beginning to talk seriously about mothing as the new birdwatching,” says Mark Parsons, head of moth conservation at Butterfly Conservation, a lively bunch with an increasing interest in the methods – and million-plus membership – of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. “Television, the internet and the huge appetite for natural history and green living are helping to expose myths about moths,” says Parsons. “And light traps and digital cameras give people the means to discover a wonderful, previously largely hidden world.”

A striking example of our changing attitudes came last month, when the clothes moth infestation encouraged by a warm spring made national news. As ever, there were comments which bracketed all of the UK’s 2,500-odd moths with the solitary species, Tineola bisselliella, whose caterpillars do the damage. But riders about the innocence, and value, of 99.9% of moths were much more prominent, including comments from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose own headquarters in London had to be fumigated.

Another victim of the outbreak, the composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, lamented the riddling of his favourite cashmere sweater, but was more concerned to reassure the music world that he was pressing on with his forthcoming piece, Requiem for a Moth. A trapper since his schoolboy days on a farm in Lancashire, he is writing a score for lyrics which list the beautiful names of moth species – scarce black arches, frosted yellow, Isle of Wight wave and 63 others – which are thought to have become extinct in the UK during the 20th century.

Half-a-dozen magazines now cater to enthusiasts , while brightening the small, dark, crepuscular image of moths is also central to the work of advocates such as “MP for moths” Madeleine Moon. Labour member for Bridgend since 2005, Moon is married to a professional ecologist and is the upbeat hostess of annual Moth Evenings at Westminster. Another tireless myth fighter (the only moth really notorious for trying to creep into people’s ears, for instance, is the harmless flame shoulder), she points out that 89 new species established themselves in the UK over the hundred years when the 66 varieties died out. In the same period, an impressive 461 others were seen or trapped.

A trio of these made Tony Blair sit up when Moon slipped a mothy reference into a Commons debate. “I mentioned Blair’s shoulder-knot in the course of my argument,” Moon says, referring to a dart-like, pearly grey species with striking black slashes, which is now widespread but was first recorded in the UK as recently as 1951. It was discovered by a Dr Blair, who had the good luck to live on the Isle of Wight, a famous first port of call for new arrivals in the UK from warmer climes. He also discovered Blair’s wainscot in 1945 and Blair’s mocha the following year.

Another myth about moths is that their admirers are small and dull, yet history suggests the opposite. Famous enthusiasts include the clown Joseph Grimaldi, Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, and the dashing Oriental traveller Margaret Fountaine, who collected the insects as enthusiastically as she did handsome dragomen – her Ottoman interpreters and guides.

Scholarly authorities on moths have also shown a vein of imagination and humour at odds with the image of drabness that has clung to their subject. A twinkly pair of professors, Sir Alister Hardy and Edmund Ford (the latter’s Moths in Collins’ New Naturalist series is perhaps the classic work in the field), shared an RAF balloon together in the late 1940s, in a run of experiments designed to test moths’ reaction to moonlight. “The results were inconclusive, partly owing to the rather complicated arrangements which had to be made,” wrote Ford, whose rigorous methods included rigging up car headlights at the foot of the balloon’s tether as a control. The two men spotted three moths flying at 1,000ft, but issued a clarion call to their successors to “continue the research in more favourable conditions”.

Today, expert amateurs watch for new arrivals at the UK’s ring of seashore moth traps, a chain of powerful, disorienting lights that resembles Churchill’s wartime radar ring. The language used to record them is pure Home Office, with moths classified as wandering vagrants, transitory residents, suspected migrants and even colonists. Their website features a live Flight Arrivals icon – yellow and black with flashing arrows like those on airport websites, except that instead of the Ryanair service to Venice or Faro you have the dark sword-grass landing on the Lizard peninsula or the bird-cherry ermine checking in at Spurn.

At the end of last year, a 454-page atlas was published by Butterfly Conservation and the National Moth Recording Scheme, with details of 11.3m moth records dating to 1769. The very first recorded in the UK was also one of the most dramatic: the extremely rare death’s-head hawk-moth, with a skull shape on its back and a unique ability to squeak. Uh-oh. A shudder-making moth indeed – it even plays a part in the film of The Silence of the Lambs. But when pupils at Husthwaite primary raised captive death’s-head hawk-moths in 2006 at Shandy Hall, the North Yorkshire home of Laurence Sterne, as a Tristram Shandy project, they loved them. It’s a project they are keen to repeat.

The Provisional Atlas of the UK’s Larger Moths is one of two bibles which are revolutionising moth recording. The other is the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, whose meticulous paintings by Richard Lewington have at last brought species identification within amateurs’ reach. (Moth antennae vary from feathery to wandlike, antlerish to TV aerialesque – contrasting with the simple club shape common to all UK butterflies.) Add the unprecedented availability of light traps, now costing from £78, and the power of digital photography, and a once-elusive prey is no longer hard to find and record.

The disreputable days of nets and killing bottles are almost entirely gone. Light-trap catches are photographed while comatose and then released; even specialists who carry out microscopic examination put their moths in freezers for half an hour and then let them flutter off after a thaw. The results promise serious scientific advantages. The large yellow underwing offers an insight into its extraordinary radar decoy defence against bats. The winter moth, which flew on the coldest nights of last December and January, uses an anti-freeze in its equivalent of blood which is not yet entirely understood. Sir Cyril Clarke first cracked the rhesus-negative blood disorder (which made “blue babies” a notorious feature of childbirth until the 1950s) through genetic findings from breeding swallowtail butterflies in his greenhouse. He followed this up with data showing that the decline of the dark-coloured peppered moth in cleaned-up industrial areas correlated exactly with the increase in centenarians (established by the rising number of birthday telegrams sent from Buckingham Palace) as the air became cleaner and healthier.

The celebrated theory of the butterfly effect holds that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the upper Amazon may in due course lead to a hurricane in Texas. The humble moth may claim as much and, in the end, more. There are so many of them, even in the modest fauna of the UK, and so much about them is waiting to be discovered.

For more about moths see
Mothing: a beginner’s guide to observing moths

There are many romantic ways of hunting moths, including the highly enjoyable process of mixing rum (a couple of generous sloshes) with a tin of treacle and smearing it on to tree trunks on a warm summer night. You will get some that way, and by researching food plants and hunting caterpillars in season – check rosebay willowherb in August for the weird, eyed, trunklike larvae of the elephant hawk. Yet nothing remotely matches a light trap, left on overnight and infallibly attracting moths for reasons still not fully understood. You can make your own; even ordinary outside lights are worth watching on warm evenings. But the Robinson Trap, designed by a famous husband-and-wife team of moth fans, is the gold standard, costing about £300. The Skinner costs about £250 and the simpler Heath Bucket £80. No killing is involved, but moths need to be hidden on release to escape watchful birds. A digital camera is essential and the Waring, Townsend and Lewington guide helps hugely, although internet searches are a good alternative. Moth blogs abound and the world of enthusiasts is friendly, with women every bit as involved as men.
Holy insect attack: How to limit moth damage

In your wardrobe

The irresistible attraction for the only serious clothes moth pest, Tineola bisselliella, is a cocktail of natural fibres, darkness, warmth and old sweat. The adult insect – small and brownish-grey – is not the direct perpetrator, but it lays the eggs that hatch the larvae, or tiny caterpillars, that then do all the munching.

Moth balls made of napthalene or paradichlorobenzene are effective but smelly, and contain toxic chemicals. The most widely favoured alternatives are lavender, rosemary or cedar wood balls, which are widely available in shops. A more exotic tactic is to release ichneumon wasps, whose parasitic prey kill the little Tineolas but do no harm themselves. There are suppliers online, but mostly far away. The best answer is regular use of clothes, or the Alexander Pope gambit. Three hundred years ago, the poet wrote: “The wasting moth ne’er spoilt my best array. The cause was this: I wore it every day.”

In your kitchen

Pantry, meal or flour moths are just like us: their caterpillars pig out on biscuits and sweets, along with any cereal food, and if all these are absent from your larder, they will boldly experiment with anything else. Modern flat-pack furniture is tailor-made for them, with holes for adjustable shelves forming perfect egg-laying sites for the adult moth. Gouging these regularly with a chopstick is brutally effective; otherwise seal food well, don’t store too much, and eat it before they can; scatter bay leaves in cupboards and clean regularly with a vinegar sponge and a good vacuuming. If especially mothphobic, put newly bought food in the freezer for a couple of days.

Britain’s moths enjoy their moment in the spotlight | Environment | The Observer

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