Horse chestnut leaf miners were living on natural stands of trees in Greece a century before they were first described by science, a study shows.
The discovery was made by researchers who examined many of Europe’s historic herbarium collections.
They say it offers an insight to the history and origins of the tiny moths, which are blighting many of the continent’s horse chestnuts.
The findings will appear in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal.
“It is a moth that has been the target of a lot of research recently because it has been expanding [its range] so fast – much faster than other kinds of leaf-mining moths,” explained co-author David Lees from the French Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).
The larval form of the Cameraria ohridella moth feed inside the leaves of the white flowering horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum), producing characteristic “mines” between the leaves’ veins.
The creatures do not kill the tree but infested trees may produce smaller conkers.
Dr Lees said C. ohridella was spreading its range by about 60km (40 miles) across Europe each year.
The small but highly invasive moth was first discovered in 1984, and first described by scientists as a genus new to Europe in just 1986. Since then, it has expanded its range across almost all of Europe.
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,”