The art of loving Moths

The scaly winged insects are often split in two groups: Butterflies and Moths. The common distinction being that moths fly at night, are more drably coloured and possess more feathery antennas. That said, many moths fly during the day and some have incredibly coloured scales… so, as I have only recently discovered and will explain very soon, the difference between the two groups is not as clear cut as it may seem. This said, I must admit I spent the majority of my time in the jungles of South America chasing butterflies; their sheer beauty, variation and abundance seduced me in a way that even the most elegant moth could not. Their teasing flutter and playfulness was to me no less magnetic than the song of the sirens had been for Odysseus, out there on the seas, many centuries before me.  On the other hand, I had always viewed their night time cousins, the moths, more tragically, finding them both pitiful and disturbing at times. Their dusty bodies had no charm, their scatty movements did not possess the gift of grace nor sensuality, and their dresses were often dull and unfitting. Furthermore, they never liked to seduce me, but would usually join me around candle light at night, perform a farewell dance and throw themselves into the flame, bidding a bitter goodbye to me and to the world with loud popping and crackling sounds. How tragic their lives would seem to my eyes! Lived in darkness, in hiding, and ending in what looked to me as a final suicidal act, consumed by the flames, leaving me with just a sense of pity (or even guilt!) and regret.  After observing this behaviour for some time, it became all the more disturbing, as it appeared that they really couldn’t resist the fatal attraction of fire, no matter how hard they tried.  As a result, I often ended up eating in the dark, pondering how they had evolved this way.  Was it the Moon’s fault? Was it the man-made fire’s fault? Or were they trying to tell us something?

Beautiful Macro Moth

Once back in England I found out that there are a lot of people who don’t pander to the overly glamorous butterflies but rather love all things moth.  It turns out that Britain has the largest group of committed persons who engage in moth counting than any other nation. Intrigued, I attended their annual recording meeting.  Moth recording or simply "Mothing" is the activity of catching, identifying and counting moths. Over the course of a night moths are lured into an enclosed area by the irresistible pull of light or sweet nectar. The following morning the moths are inspected and recorded before being safely released back into the environment. The data is then supplied to one of the vast network of county recorders.  These nominated persons verify the data before sharing it with the national moth recording scheme database.  To date, there are over 2400 species of moths recorded in the UK.

So what’s it all about and why should and do people care so much about moths?

Well, like most obsessions the reasons vary from childhood memories to more practical explanations. The most convincing of which is that moths, like butterflies, are incredibly sensitive to changes in their environment, to the extent that they have been described as the modern canaries down the mines.  As such, their study provides vital data on the health of the environment.  Abnormal temperature variations, land management practices and pesticides are all taking their toll on moth populations. Evidence of this can be found in the 2013 "The State of Nature report" which Sir David Attenborough described as a call to arms. Some 60% of species studied have declined over the past 50 years, providing a stark reminder of the environmental consequences of the current economic model.

Aside from these motivations I feel that a lot of people partake in Mothing not just for the value that their data can provide to conservation practitioners and policy makers, but due to a rather more fundamental drive. That is of course, for fun! Whilst some people are scared of moths and others view them as pests that eat through our cloths and lay eggs in our grains, many are in love with the colourfully named and beautifully extravagant insects. Why else would people drive for hours at night to set up these traps and then return in the morning to see what they have caught?

It’s understandable; I mean who wouldn't want to catch a Garden Tiger, Grey Dagger, Mother of Pearl or my personal favourite, the Scarlet Tiger? The names themselves are interesting enough to make you yearn for a glimpse! And given that are approximately 2400 different species of moths just in the UK, who wouldn't be tempted to get into mothing?!

Hawk Moth
Six-Spot Burnet Moth (by Mark Wilson)

For those interested in Mothing check out www.mothscount.org

by Nick, Oropendola Productions