Monday, 11 July 2016


The word 'moth' enjoyed possibly its greatest ever outing on the internet last night, when swarms of Silver Ys stole the limelight at the Euro 16 football Cup Final. Limelight is an appropriate word in the context, because the swarm was attracted to the Stade de France after the floodlights were left on overnight before the match between Portugal and France.

This is a fatal thing to do if you don't want insects. Floodlights may not have mercury vapour bulbs but they are a moth-magnet to equal many hundreds of my doughty Robinson trap. Among many anecdotes, there are numerous records of entomological prisoners of war finding solace in captivity because of the number of moths attracted to security lights on the perimeter wire. I remember a particularly enthusiastic account by a German naturalist who was lucky enough to be sent to a British PoW camp in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. In football, there was once a evening match cancelled because so many moths had clustered on the floodlights that visibility fell below safe levels for play.

Anyway, the publicity given to moths was exceedingly welcome and pleasantly warm-hearted. Although one of the BBC commentors repeated the old twaddle about all moths being a threat to your cardigans, most people relished in the enormous fame given to one of the Silver Ys which fluttered on the cheek of Christiano Ronaldo as he lay injured on the pitch. By halftime, more than 60 Twitter accounts purporting to belong to this moth had been set up, broadcasting messages such as: 'Mummy, I'm on the Tele! Look at me!'

Why did the moth go for Ronaldo? Possibly it appreciated his expertise on the field but more likely, if prosaically, it would have been the sweat. Like most UK moths, Silver Ys are great consumers of nectar - they are day- as well as night-flyers and you will see them on bramble flowers on country walks. They find sweat every bit as tasty, as hard-working gardeners know.

An unusually small Silver Y on one of my trap's eggboxes. This is form gamina, which is thought to have restricted growth because of food shortages during its caterpillar stage (probably a result of having so many competitors, given the Silver Y's swarming habits). Gamina is a nice conceit; the normal species is called Autographa gamma because the 'Y' more resembles the Greek letter gamma. So gamina serves both as a diminutive of gamma and a reference to the French 'gamin' or 'gamine' meaning 'kid' as in a young person.

Entomologists were also greatly stirred. On one forum, I found the scholarly response to a query about whether the moths were Silver Ys: "Yes. Silver Y landed on Ronaldo's face based on the TV coverage and they seem to be the majority but there appeared to be another more uniform light brown noctuid at one point."

I missed that, myself. But the Silver Ys were certainly behaving according to type. In the Moth Bible, their propensity for swarming is noted with three or four usages of the word 'abundance'. They are an immigrant species and have been recorded coming in over the coast, like some aerial invader, in huge numbers. Interestingly, the Spring arrivals are usually a pale brown colour due to being raised in warmer climes. The ones which grow up as caterpillars here hatch a darker brown.

The cold does for them in the end, although there are a few records of caterpillars being found here in the winter. Meanwhile my trap has been attracting rather more delicate moths, as shown below:

Common (but lovely) Emerald with chequered border intact because freshly-hatched

White Satin; such a delicate moth

A dainty Clouded Border from below

Small Magpie; one of the UK's largest micro moths

Fantail.  Update: sorry, Fan-foot - many thanks to much-appreciated commentor. Soft grey colours and a fine triangular shape at rest

Swallowtail Moth, aristocrat of the pale nd ghostly brigade

One of the nicest of all was not a visitor to the trap but fluttered gracefully out of the way of my lawnmower yesterday afternoon. This is a White Plume, a moth whose delicate wing pinions might have inspired Leonardo da Vinci's  drawings of flying devices. It's not uncommon and often a day flyer when disturbed in grass. Now if only that species had invaded the Football final (in which, for the record and future generations, Portugal beat France 1-0. But the really big winners were the moths).


Anonymous said...

Hi Martin

If I was inclined to be pedantic, I'd say it was a Fan-foot rather than a Fantail, but I'm not, so I won't.

Martin Wainwright said...

Oh dear sorry to be so slow in responding. Thanks so much - I'll update it now all warm wishes M