26th August 2019 – a mistrust of moths

Back in July I was on a train into London when a man sitting opposite me stood up and flapped his hands frantically.  A large dark moth was flying around his small son and the dad was determined to swat it away or kill it. I wondered at the time whether he’d have reacted like this if it had been a butterfly.

Why is it we love butterflies but many of us find moths a bit creepy?   This is particularly strange given that butterflies are a small subset of moths anyway.  And fear of moths is such a thing that it even has its own name – mottephobia. 

Do moths make us think of holes in our favourite woollies, or, if we garden, the caterpillars chomping on our fruit?   Or do we shudder at the self-destructive compulsion they have for lights? Cultural references haven’t helped the moths’ cause either.  Think the Death’s head hawkmoth in Silence of the Lambs, the image of Ithaca filled with moths in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus or the association of moths with death in some South American cultures.

And how we feel about moths matters because they are probably the second most important pollinators after bees. And that’s on top of being an – if not the most – important food source for the chicks of some of our favourite garden birds.

The Butterfly Conservation Organisation (interesting that it’s not Butterfly and Moth) reports numbers of moths have reduced by nearly half in southern Britain since the sixties and are still falling.

There is hope though. Moth champions all over Britain are trying to persuade us all to care more. Champions like Sam from the London Wildlife Trust who arrives at my house mid afternoon on a sultry August day… with a moth trap.  We set up the trap in our small back garden next to a woodland nature reserve in south London. The trap’s light is designed to come on automatically at sunset and it works because moths are attracted to the light and settle on the angled acrylic beneath it. The attraction must wear thin as eventually they crawl into the trap to get away from the light and hide in the egg boxes inside.

Next morning there’s a moth I think is a garden tiger sitting on the outside of the trap but only one moth visible inside.  The garden tiger flies off, flashing its scarlet underwings, when my husband joins me. Some neighbours arrive too, they’re not usually nature watchers but curious to see what’s happening next door. I’m worried that the catch might be embarassingly small and hope that more moths are hidden among the boxes.

We help Rachel, another moth champion, carry the trap to a shady patch in the woods just as the volunteer identification team start arriving.

It’s time. The fifteen moths we have in the trap are quickly transferred to their own specimen jars.  Now the challenge really begins as most of us are fairly moth ignorant. We peer through magnifying lenses, check guides and debate. Through crowd intelligence we decide that six large moths of the original fifteen are the same species. Cross referencing colouring and furriness, usual flying months and favoured habitats we cautiously identify them as Large Yellow Underwings.  

A further two moths look very similar and could possibly be Yellow Shells which the books tell us are very common and found in broadleaved woodlands like ours.

I’m struck by how differently the moths behave. A dark brown medium-sized moth rests with its forewings folded close to its body and visibly shakes. One of the larger moths fights to escape its jar. Some others are motionless, apparently unbothered by the experience.

We aren’t offended when Rachel begins to take photos so she can confirm our identifications with an expert.  And a few days later, I am pleased to hear that despite our ignorance we were right about the Large Yellow Underwings and the Yellow Shells. The ones we were stuck with if nothing else demonstrate the wonderfully poetic names some moths have. They were a Pale Mottled Willow, a Straw Underwing, a Maiden’s Blush, a Square Spot Rustic and a Marbled Beauty.

Yellow Shell

So while we do need real moth experts to halt the falling numbers, having the chance to appreciate moth beauty through a magnifying glass may be enough to convert the mottephobes among us. 

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