This summer I discovered a nocturnal world of beauty and awe. For Father’s Day, on 18th June this year, I was bought a moth trap and this single item has opened the door to an entire whole new world. A few times a week I plug in the trap and leave it lit up all night. A typical catch is not particularly large or diverse, as the local habitat is not great. Despite this we have recorded over 100 species since mid-June, nearly twice the number of bird species recorded in the same period. And 100 species is not a particularly good total. If the habitat was wilder and more diverse, many more species would be possible. A friend with a larger, more mature garden in East Oxford and far better identification skills then myself, has recorded over 300 species. But I still find it incredible that so many moths visit our unremarkable garden at night. But to see them, one requires a moth trap:
My moth trap, a Skinner Trap, is effectively a wooden box, with sloping perspex panels under a fluorescent bulb. The panels funnel any moths attracted to light into the box and keep those inside from escaping. It is best filled with empty egg-boxes which provide hiding places for the trapped moths, until they can be safely released in the morning. Traps are widely available, but Richard Campey at the One Stop Nature Shop sells moth traps at a very competitive price and provides excellent, friendly advice (conflict alert: he is also a good friend!).
I photograph any new species or particularly good looking ones. This provides a useful record and as my identification skills progress, gives me the opportunity to revise identification at a later date if necessary, which is all a good part of the learning experience. Some go unidentified, but the online community is very friendly and helpful and can usually point me in the right direction. The Norfolk Moths and Hants Moths sites quickly became immediate references, even if I live somewhere between these two counties. For reference books I use Richard Lewington‘s fabulous Field Guide to the Moths of Britain. The Amazon link is here, but you may wish to support your local book shop too.
Species turnover is very rapid, which is one reason why so many species can be recorded even in a small garden such as ours. Most moth species seem only to have a few weeks on the wing. Moths also have a fabulous selection of names. When we began it was all Hearts and Darts and Scarlet Tigers; then staggering numbers of various Yellow Underwings before the nights drew in and Lunar Underwings became all the rage.
So having set up my trap and caught a few moths, I was then faced with the challenge of identification. Initially I found this very difficult. Then things sort of clicked and I became able to pick out distinguishing features and develop some idea of what was likely. I am a complete beginner, but the pleasure has been enormous. It has been fascinating to begin an identification process in a new field and to contrast this with a field in which I am competent, but not expert. Bird identification is something I have done for years. I am certainly not perfect, but I have a good understanding of what is likely and am familiar with most European bird species. With moth identification I had no such context. In the beginning there were just so many moths and all appeared very, very similar. But humans are very good at pattern recognition and with time and persistence, patterns and identifications emerged.
It has also been fascinating to compare my developing skills with those of my seven year old daughter. Frighteningly, in no time at all, she was much better at identification than I was. She could glance down at a moth and dismiss my postulated identification in a second. Children’s brains are truly remarkable things when it comes to learning. Both my five year old and my seven year old daughters love coming down to examine and help release the moths on a moth trap morning. Indeed, one of the unexpected benefits of moth trapping which will stay with me forever, was the day in late June when I discovered both children dressed and in the garden at 5:50am on a school day. I was greeted with the words “7 Scarlet Tigers Daddy!”
Once I had a basic grasp of some of the features to look for, the species came thick and fast. One of my early dream species was Elephant Hawk Moth. Adorned in pink and brown, like a character from 1960s Carnaby Street, these are large and striking beasts. On June 22nd, in our first week of trapping, I peered into the trap to be greeted with the sight of magnificent Elephant Hawk Moth. It was unclear who was more excited: my children or myself. Either way, we had caught the bug.
Admiring one of the more spectacular visitors to our garden:
Other favourites from the first few months include Dark Arches:
Plain Golden Y:
A lovely Herald:
The magnificent Iron Prominent…
… which also has fabulous antennae:
The remarkably shaped Spectacle:
A personal favourite, Angle Shades. We all find it very difficult not to call this moth “Angel Shades”, a much better name in our opinion!
The late summer inundation of Large, Lesser, Broad-bordered and Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwings was great fun. The moth trap would be buzzing with moths, every cavity in every egg box bursting with one of the Yellow Underwing types:
Once word got out that we were interested in moths, other people begun to support our interest. A work colleague who was clearing their allotment found an Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar. This beast (below) is currently going through the process of pupating in a tank filled with soil in our garden. We await the emergence of the adult in spring.
A small minority of moths are also active in the day. It is always a treat to come across a day-flying Hummingbird Hawk Moth:
Studying moths has also increased our awareness of the importance of biodiversity and habitat. All those moths come from pupae that come from caterpillars that feed on specific host plants. Without those host plants there are no moths. And therefore, less food for bats too. Those patches of Yellow Ragwort are no longer “weeds”. They are Cinnabar Moth caterpillar food stations. Moth trapping has not simply engaged myself and my children with a deeper appreciation for moths and their habitat requirements. It has enhanced the key component in watching and recording wildlife – the pure joy of discovery. You simply never know what will be found in the trap in the morning, every catch is completely different. We really have caught the bug.