Tuesday, 7 June 2011


I cut this picture below out of the Sunday Telegraph a couple of years ago, thinking that I might use it next time an Eyed Hawk moth came along. Now one has, although not to the trap in person, but via my illustrious Guardian colleague Chris Thomond whose photographs do a matchless job of illustrating northern England (and elsewhere) in the paper and online.

He's visited a nursery called Guardian Angels where the subject of moths must have come up, because the children and staff gave him this photograph below - blurred but in a rather nice, Impressionist way - which he emailed to me last night for identification with the alarming note: 23 toddlers await your verdict.

Well toddlers (and staff): you have done BRILLIANTLY, photographing an Eyed Hawk which is one of the UK's biggest and most excitingly-coloured moths. It is extremely unusual in having a dash of blue in its colouring; for reasons not yet understood but probably to do with flying at night rather than in the light, blue is almost unheard-of in UK moths. There are about three species with just a dab of it.

More interestingly, the Eyed Hawk is an example of 'double protection' against predators such as birds. Its forwings have the classic moth camouflage of subdued colours and a complex, veiny pattern which allows the insect to merge into leaf litter or similar natural backgrounds where it sleeps by day. But if movement or something else gives it away, a flick of the wings forward reveals the startling 'eyes'. We know from other examples such as the famous Peacock butterfly, below, that these form an effective scare for birds.

I think that the Sunday Telegraph was being a bit Beatrix Potterish, or anthropomorphic to use the long official word, to suggest that the moth might resemble a fox. The likeness is very striking to our eyes, but birds see (and presumably think) very differently; and even though the Eyed Hawk is a large moth, it is tiny compared to a fox.

Moths do need this protection. This morning there was a pretty little Magpie moth in the trap which fluttered off from its eggbox just as I was preparing to photograph it - because it is an interesting species in that genetic experiments were carried out on a colony by the surgeon (and keen moth man) Sir Geoffrey Keynes, brother of Maynard, the economist who saved the capitalist system. I watched it flutter away to a clump of primroses - but so did a robin, which swooped down like a Spitfire. RIP Magpie moth.


worm said...

..also interesting that some caterpillars have eyes (such as the elephant hawk or the puss moth) whilst their adult versions do not - we can but wonder at nature's providence!

MartinWainwright said...

It's a wonderful subject, animal camouflage and protective measures and very important in the evidence for natural selection. Have you ever seen a Lobster moth caterpillar? I hope to, one day, but the pics of them online are amazing anyway.

worm said...

only ever seen photos of the lobster moth caterpillar too martin - they look incredible (if a little disgusting)

Miss c challoner said...

Hi Martin and fellow moth enthusiasts (if that is the correct term) I have recently become interested in moths, the magpie moth in particular. After moving into a new flat last year a friend noticed that my fence was becoming covered in caterpillars as were the currant bushes growing behind. Over the last few months I have noted them becoming chrysalis and today I witnessed one emerge into a beautiful magpie moth. There are hundreds upon hundreds of these chyrisallis adorning my fence.

I have recently learned that they are a less common sighting these days. I wonder, are these likely to remain around my garden once ther are all fully fledged flyers or will they move on? They fly with the grace of a butterfly. I will be sad to see them all go.