Wednesday, 27 July 2016


Moths have many enemies - birds, rain, cold and bats. Here is one of the last, which somehow came to grief, possibly by a collision after some failing in its famous radar. We found it dead on the terrace outside our house. Perhaps it is a juvenile which tumbled on its maiden flight.

I have sent these pictures off to Bat Conservation both in Oxford and nationally and hope to find some answers, including which of the UK's various species it is. The feature of it which most intrigued me and Penny was the small nodule poking out of each ear, doubtless something to do with bats' incredible ability to hear. This supplements their radar and makes them deadly predators of moths - apart from the Large Yellow Underwing which has developed an extraordinary ability to counter bat radar signals. The ears of Long-eared Bats are apparently so sharp that they can hear a ladybird walking on a leaf. Or even an eggbox - see recent picture from the mothtrap, left.

It's always a matter for reflection when you encounter animals with abilities superior to our own,  in however limited a field. Moths' antennae come into this category, along with more familiar talents such as hawklike vision or the speed of a cheetah.  Back to practical matters: neither of us could be sure from online photos which type of bat this is, or was, but I'll pass on the news when it comes from the experts.

Meanwhile here is a common but beautiful micro moth, Pyrausta purpuralis. No prizes for guessing what purpuralis means. Why such a little nipper should have been given such noble raiment - purple being traditionally considered the king of the colours and duly worn by kings - I do not know but I have just started re-reading Professor Edmund Ford's classic book Moths to refresh my mind on such matters.

Having raised the issue of 'royal purple', I also felt an obligation to check why the colour has been considered so grand. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, banned its wearing by anyone who wasn't a member of the Royal family. Conversely, the Roman emperor Aurelian refused to allow his wife to buy a purple shawl because of the hit it would have inflicted on the family finances.

The answer lies in a Mediterranean mollusc called the Spiny Dye-murex whose secretions were used by dyers in ancient Tyre to make the colour. It required some 10,000 snails to make a gram of powder. Hence the price. We all wear it now thanks to the UK scientist William Henry Perkins who synthesised a chemical version in 1856 while experimenting with quinine, the famous anti-malaria drug. The name subsequently changed in fashion circles to Mauve, after the French term for the Mallow flower, one of hundreds in Nature which for centuries have flaunted their many varieties of purple in the face of the human race.

And lastly a somewhat dishevelled but still delicate beautiful Clouded Silver, one of the 'Laura Ashley' moths whose dainty grace reminds me of the nighties in which that company specialised when P and I were young marrieds. Purple just wouldn't have been the same.

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