Monday, November 7, 2011

Nocturnes - papillon de nuit

A collection of British moths

As boys, my brother and I would go hunting for moths. We used homemade nets and would roam the avenues by our house, lurking under street lamps and looking for tell-tale flickers. The moths would gather most near midnight, and we'd make our way to the railway station where the bulkhead lights cast a glow over beds of nettles and convolvulus.

You'd never see that now: two boys in duffle coats, walking the streets with nets and jars. But I'm glad I was allowed, because for me it began a fascination with travelling at night that I love still. There's a tension to travelling in the dark, an alertness that's akin to what nocturnal prey must feel - for though it was me that was hunting the moths, I've always felt more like the hunted.

Perhaps that's why we caught so few. But we did learn a lot about their behaviour: how they spiralled, which would fall to ground, what conditions were best and when not to go at all. In August there'd be hundreds of yellow underwings, once we caught an elephant hawkmoth, and we discovered larvae of the willow hawkmoth nocturnally feeding night in the trees of Belsay Gardens. We even smeared rum laced treacle on the trees to see what would be feeding next morning.

There are 800 species of larger moths in the UK, about 2400 if you include the 'micros' - this compares to about 60 butterflies, and explains why most lepidopterists soon turn to the night. And you'd be wrong if you thought moths were all dull and brown - indeed, the bigger ones are more spectacular than butterflies - papillon de nuit the French call them, and they are right. They are right too, in that there's no absolute distinction from butterflies - taxonomically, they are all of one lineage.

By the time I was teenager I had a moth trap - its actinic tube emitted an ultra violet glow that would attract hundreds more than a street lamp. It's not the brightness to our eyes that matters, but the colour on the light spectrum - have you noticed there are much fewer moths round lampposts these days? That's because most street lamps are now yellow, one of the least phototactic colours to insects. You'll see more moths in your headlights than you would by walking the streets.

In my mid teens I started to make money from my interest - I'd buy eggs of exotic silk moths (saturniidae), feed the larvae, store the cocoons and breed the adults in cages I made from net curtains - then sell the hundreds of eggs at a profit. Forty years later I still receive newsletters from the Exotic Entomology Group - and as an aside, if anyone's thinking of rearing some caterpillars with their kids, silk-moths are way easier and more spectacular than butterflies. I bought my boys some moon moth cocoons when they were toddlers - I remember them crouching by the cage, awestruck and whispering, as the adults emerged and their pale wings filled with fluid, expanding to a six inch span, the long tails twisting below.

Moths are possibly the most ignored of the major creatures we could easily observe. Most of us get a thrill in recognising wild mammals - (though as challenge, see if you can name twenty different British wild ones without getting into sub species; it's much harder than you think) - birding is hugely popular; plants and trees (ok, not creatures, but you know what I mean) too. There are more beetles than moths but the identification is tortuous and frankly they are hard to find - similar problems apply to spiders, wasps and ants. Yet in most gardens you could almost certainly record a hundred moths; they'd be there most of the year too, feeding and breeding and flying to your window - butterflies of the night.

Hawkmoth larva
Click here for a fantastic website on UK moths

10 comments:

  1. We have a monster moth at the window every evening..he takes up whee the tanager takes off in the daytime. A big death's head and huge brown wings.

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  2. Hello Mark:
    How very fascinating. We do, of course, remember when it was perfectly acceptable to collect butterflies and moths, but have never come across anyone who bred them - and for money too!

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  3. Translate the French into Spanish and it has a very different meaning. We discovered this in Mallorca when talking to the Parc Natural staff and they fell about laughing at my attempts to speak Spanish!

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  4. Many thanks for enlightening my ignorance about moths so interestingly, Mark. Out here beyond the streetlights we get them plastered against the windows, but I'm ashamed to say I've never known much about them or distinguished between them.

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  5. How interesting. I prefer Moths to butterflies. We used to live near the Rothschild museum in Tring, which was a delightful old fashioned museum, full of cabinets of insects and moths and such. You had to shut the doors after viewing to protect them from the light.

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  6. We have an octogenarian neighbour who has recorded moths for years and is something of an expert.
    Have you read the novel The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, a great read and even more so if you do love moths.

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  7. Have to confess I have a phobia where moths areconcerned. I really, really can't handle being in the same room as one, dead oralive. For all that, I can appreciate their beauty in photographs...!

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  8. I so enjoyed reading this, and learned so much. Thank you. In fact, have been really enjoying all your daily nature/naturalist posts and your writing ... a pleasure to read. Thank you

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  9. I'm afraid o have a moth phobia. I'm sure an opaque moth was stalking me the other night, I was most unimpressed.
    I must say though, this post fascinated me, maybe I'll appreciate them a bit more now! Very engaging.

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  10. Yet another good post. I think it is massively to this country's detriment that you don't see kids getting into that kind of stuff anymore. Maybe they are and I am just out of touch, but it doesn't seem that way. That said, Deadly 60 on BBC2 in the mornings has really helped my son and daughter love bugs of all kinds. The guy on there, Steve Backshall has done wildlife in this country a great service, I think. My two fearlessly pick up frogs and worms and all kinds of creepy crawlies, and are fascinated by them. I'd be worried if they weren't!

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