Friday, 27 May 2011

The moth that thinks it's a butterfly

Quite often, I find moths in the trap which look dead - lying on their backs or sides like the White Ermine a couple of posts below. But like Jairus' daughter, they are not dead but sleeping. This nice little Cinnabar, above, is dead, I'm afraid. I found it in the greenhouse on a window sill, either doomed by the heat and failure to find the door, or caught by a spider. A strand of web entangled its legs.

This is a common moth but interesting. It flies by day and has simple antennae, two of the features which distinguish butterflies from moths. My moth Bible describes its colouring as red and black, but I detect a greenish tinge to the 'black'. It has similar cousins in the Burnet moths which have the same colourways (cinnabar is the reddish ore from which mercury is made) and butterfly habits. So is it a butterfly? No. The antennae are not clubbed at the end, which is always the case in butterflies, and the Cinnabar is equally happy flying at night which no British butterflies do (unless you disturb a hibernating Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell from your curtains). No doubt there are other more scientific and taxonomic reasons which I will master one day.

Cinnabar caterpillars are a major reason for supporting ragwort against its enemies among the tidy-minded and over-anxious horse owners. Boldly striped in black and yellow they are easy to find on the bright and sturdy weed between July and early September. They feed quite openly and unconcerned because their bold colouring cries out to birds: Careful! I am poisonous. Some humans may wonder if they are also radioactive.
One final moth in this day-flying group is the pleasantly-named Burnet Companion, which looks completely different but enjoys daytime outings, often in company with Burnets or Cinnabars. Thanks for the catty pic to Oh, and here's an update: check our Comments and also this excellent blog: We should all defend the noble weed.


worm said...

Unlike the Cinnabar (which is a terrific name don't you think) the six spot burnets have very visible clubs on their antennae don't they. I love this little subset of moths as they are so bright and exotic, yet also so sluggish and easy to catch!

I once stumbled across some sort of giant relative of the burnet in the jungle in northern australia - the four o'clock moth. It was probably the most dramatic moth I've ever seen! here's a pic - note the blue colour, which backs up your blue colouring/daytime theories

MartinWainwright said...

Ooh what a lovely moth! We must write a book on the Great Blue Issue. Interesting too about the Burnet's antennae cos it's much more of a day-flyer. The Cinnabar seems to treat it more as a hobby. Thanks ever so and specially for the scrummy picture. It could be the Ukrainian national moth.

mabymynydd said...

To right Martin on the Cinnabar Moths. There is real hysteria on Ragwort see. for my almost daily comment on seeing hysteria somewhere or other.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent blog,mabymynydd!

I am going back in to update may post with a link

Thanks very much and all power to your elbow

Martin (sorry it will say Anon for tecky reasons but it's really me...)

Banished To A Pompous Land said...

My word Martin, I'm out of blogging circulation for a day or two and all lepidopteran hell breaks loose in Leeds. You have been busy. The Poplar Hawks were very common when I was in Gloucester and you'd find them perched in the oddest places and scaring the living daylights out of our less mothy brothers and sisters.

MartinWainwright said...

Hi Banished - sorry for delay - Blogspot has been playing up a bit. Yes it's been good and busy though we've now got classic British weather for Spring Bank; cold and grey. Still, if the rain holds off, I'll be trapping again tonight. Hope it's nice over there. All v best M

mabymynydd said...

The story over the exaggerated claims about ragwort has been in the press. The Advertising Standards Authority have been involved.