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The Joys of Moth-ing

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Logo: Butterfly Conservation

By Dr Zoe Randle, Senior Surveys Officer

Canary shouldered thorn (Iain Leach)
Canary shouldered thorn (Iain Leach)

Moth Night is the annual celebration of moths and moth recording. It is organised by Atropos, Butterfly Conservation and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The arrival of Moth Night every year (this year from 27 – 29 August) serves as a timely reminder of the joy to be had in moth-ing and also of just how easy it can be to study these amazing creatures. The great appeal of moth recording is that you don’t have to go anywhere in particular to find numerous species. An average garden can be home to a couple of hundred species. How can you find out if you have Elephants and Tigers in your garden? Simply start moth-ing…and what better time to do it? Recently along with the Big Butterfly Count, we have had National Moth Week, a global citizen science initiative which launched on 18 July and now Moth Night, the annual celebration of moth recording, and throughout Britain and Ireland which runs from 27th to 29th August 2020.

How to start moth-ing

During Moth Night people are encouraged to get out and have a look for moths to appreciate the diversity and value of these amazing creatures. The best way to observe moths in your garden is by running a moth trap but there are simpler ways which don’t require special equipment. Dusking is a great way to start moth-ing, all you need to do is search flowering plants with a torch for an hour or two after dusk. Alternatively, try leaving an outside or porch light on after dark, and look for moths on lighted windows or lit walls and fences. A white sheet hanging up with a bright torch shining on it can also be effective.

If you decide a trap is the way forward, then there are several trap type and bulb type options available from the various entomological equipment suppliers.

Below is a short video of Zoe opening a moth trap

Elephant hawk moth (Richard Szczygiel)
Elephant hawk moth (Richard Szczygiel)

Everyone has their own personal favourite time of the year for moths and moth recording. Mine is summer when some of the most beautiful species are on the wing. Elephant Hawk-moth is still around, this stunning pink and olive green moth is always a crowd pleaser and completely dispels the myth that moths are boring brown creatures! The Elephant Hawk-moth is widespread across England, Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Since the 1980s, this species has expanded its range northwards in Scotland. In terms of distribution the species has a positive trend increasing its distribution by 147% since 1970. This species also has the most incredible caterpillars which can be seen from late June through to September. The caterpillars feed on willowherbs and fuchsias and are most often encountered when they are looking for somewhere to pupate, or when resting on stems in good weather, as they are very large, with noticeable eye markings.

It is this time of year when we often see an increase in numbers of Silver Y moth as they migrate to our shores from the continent. The arrival of Silver Y to Britain and Ireland is considerably earlier now than it was in the 1970s. This species is a true migrant spreading northwards each year to breed across Britain and Ireland with the offspring returning to warmer parts of Europe. As with Painted Lady butterflies and Humming-bird Hawk-moths this species occasionally has bumper years and arrives as a massive influx, for example, in August 1996 around 3 million per hour were recorded on Shetland.

Both the Silver Y and Six-spot Burnet moth are included in Butterfly Conservations’ Big Butterfly Count which ran from 17 July to 9 August. If you did take part in this very simple but effective citizen science survey you can submit your sightings until 30th August via the website or the free smartphone app. This survey helps Butterfly Conservation to ‘take the pulse of nature’ and enables busy people to take some time out to relax and unwind, which in turn can boost your immune system, highly beneficial during a global pandemic!

Doing a spot of moth-ing during Moth Night can also help to boost our feelings of wellbeing as we connect with nature.

Red underwing (Iain Leach)
Red underwing (Iain Leach)

There are a vast number of moths of interest and beauty that can be seen in late August, some of my personal highlights that I love to encounter are; Angle Shades, at rest the pinkish-brown wings are folded along the body, disguising the moth as a withered autumn leaf; Canary-shouldered Thorn is an absolute beauty with its broad bright canary-yellow coloured shoulders! Blood-vein is a pretty moth too, it has buff coloured wings, with a pink tinge to the outside edge of its wings and a distinctive pink or brownish-red line across the fore and hind wings. Along with these is also the Red Underwing, a large moth with a wingspan of 66-80mm. The forewings are grey and as the name suggests the underwings are red (with black bands). This moth experienced a significant increase in distribution (112%) between 1970 and 2016. It has spread thorough northern England, recently colonised the Isle of Man and looks to be spreading in southern Scotland and the east coast of Ireland.

Every year Moth Night has a ‘theme’, this year it is underwing moths, so Red Underwing is a target species along with Rosy Underwing, Dark Crimson Underwing and Light Crimson Underwing.

The scientific name for Dark Crimson Underwing is Catocala sponsa, this comes from the words for below, beautiful and bride, and apparently refers to an old tradition of brides wearing gaudy underwear! As a resident, this moth is found primarily in the New Forest, north Hampshire and south Wiltshire, it is also known as a scarce immigrant.

Logo: Atropos

The recently published Atlas of Britain and Ireland’s Larger Moths provides the most up-to-date information on status, trends, phenology and distribution for species 893 species. Almost one-third of larger moth species are significantly declining in distribution, 34% of species are declining in abundance and 17% of species are declining in both measures. It’s not all bad news though as some species are doing well; 38% of species are experiencing increases in distribution and 11% of species increasing in abundance.

The findings from the atlas are based on the 25.6 million moth records submitted by the moth recording community via the County Moth Recorder network to the National Moth Recording Scheme and the MothsIreland datasets. If you want your moth records to contribute to conservation, science and research please send your records to your local County Moth Recorder who will check them for accuracy and submit them to the relevant scheme.

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