Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Glories now - and to come

I have not been trapping recently because of the freezing nights, although the days by contrast are lovely and sunny at the moment. The garden is full of colour too, and scent, so no doubt moths are around. Their caterpillars certainly are.

I was consulted by a neighbour about these ones which are infesting her comfrey. We agreed, I am happy to report, that it was worth the damage to the plants to have a fine display of Scarlet Tiger moths in a couple of months' time. They are among the most striking of all the UK's moths, especially as they have the obliging habit of flying by day.  That's worth a whole allotment of comfrey in my book.

With adult species, meanwhile, it was nice to be visited by the year's first Early Thorn before the frost and snow arrived.  Here's a second one, below, along with my first Engrailed of 2021, a Clouded Drab with unusually distinctive markings which make it much less drab than most, and the micro Diurnea fagella.

Finally, another year's first with the curious little 20-plume micro Alucita hexadactyla, whose wings unfurl to show prominent spokes, like an umbrella.  The top picture is sadly blurred but gives an idea. Twenty-plume is an ambitious name. There are actually only twelve.  You can also enjoy my new pyjamas.

Friday, 26 March 2021


Although my new mercury vapour bulb shines brightly and sturdily, trapping is still a little intermittent at the moment because of unpredictable weather. I am pleased to report the arrival of a perennial favourite however, the Early Grey, which inevitably reminds me of tea. It came on the same night as a bevy of Hebrew Characters; here are two in contrasting colourways, below.

I also found this little caterpillar on the garden table while cutting reeds from the canal to renew the thatch on the grandchildren's treehouse. It's sadly undistinguished and may be a juvenile - the black thing is a felt tip pen, the nearest object I could grab for scale.  If any passer-by has caterpillar expertise, I'd be very grateful for an ID.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

When the lights come on again

My long-serving mercury vapour lightbulb went phut about three weeks ago, plunging me as well as the garden into gloom. If you go to entomological suppliers' websites, you will find dire warnings about these bulbs being phased out because of their inefficiency and wastage of resources.

Less specialised lighting companies seem to be less affected by pessimism and I have now got two new bulbs without difficulty from General Lamps whose ordering and despatching is top notch. Two nights ago, I pressed the on switch and the familiar hum from the choke began. Out on the lawn, the new bulb started with the familiar, rather unearthly pink colour and then warmed up to its dazzling full light.

So I am back in action; and that first night brought a good guest-list of predictable mid-March moths. Two of them were the March Moth itself, a species which tends to arrive in the month whose name it bears, unlike other species such as the August and September Thorns which can be promiscuous in their dates.

The second night saw the arrival of the first really attractive moth of the year, the Pine Beauty shown in my first picture.  The Oak Beauty shown in my last post is a fine moth and even the Quakers and Drabs have their discreet charms, but the Pine Beauty is the sort which gives you a thrill when you see it gleaming in the egg boxes. Yes, even after all these years.

Here are the other arrivals - from the top row reading left to right: Common Quaker, Lead-coloured Drab, March Moth, Oak Beauty, Small Quaker, the micro Agonopterix arenella, Twin-spotted Quaker and a pair of Hebrew Characters with their distinctive marking like the Hebrew letter 'Nun'.  I am on the watch for Lead-coloured Drabs which are confusingly like the Clouded ones but the males have distinctive feathered antennae. One of my unusual morning pursuits in the next few days will be tickling suspect examples to see if they are feathered or not.

In the meanwhile I'm hugely indebted to Ben Sale of Herts Moths for ID-ing the Lead-coloured Drab shown in my composite, which I originally took to be Clouded. He can do it without seeing the antennae, but I can't!

Monday, 1 March 2021



The nights have gone icy again and the moth trap is largely shunned. By contrast, the days have been sunny, bright and even genuinely warm. On cue, out come the butterflies'

The Brimstone is traditionally the earliest in the UK. Some say that the word butterfly stems from this; the 'butter-coloured fly' which cheers everyone up at the very beginning of Spring. I saw my first of 2021 on 24 February, as reported in the last post. It was more of a 'lemon-coloured fly' which denotes the male. It was skittery and would not stop for a picture. Checking back on my records, it was the earliest I have seen but only by one day.

I have seen several Small Tortoiseshells, venturing out from hibernation, and Sunday brought this beautiful Peacock to add extra loveliness to one of our crocuses, or croci as the Romans would doubtless have said. Talking of loveliness, that is the word for a gathering of ladybirds. We have a lot of loveliness of that kind around just now. Here are some examples, on two of the grandchildren's arms and in our honeysuckle which P was trimming (extremely carefully).

I did put the light trap out a couple of nights ago and went to have a look at 11pm. These two moths were snuggling on to the nearby wall. I took these rather poor photos and confidently expected them to be there in the morning. They weren't, and there was nothing actually in the trap either.

The first is a Dotted Border but the second had me puzzled. As always in such cases, I posted it on the unfailingly helpful Upper Thames Moths blog and Bingo! Tim Arnold and Dave Wilton identified it as a Clouded Drab, a common species but new for me this year.  I like Tim's description of the moth as like 'a watercolour painting in which the colour has run more than intended'.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

The coming of Spring

How lovely! Spring weather as early as this; and it has brought that nicely-named moth the Spring Usher to my light. Among the regular company at this time of year, it is attractively coloured and patterned too, though it would hardly stand out among the moths which will be winging their way here in the next few months. Update: whoops, my first bungle of the year, though luckily I am the one to discover and correct it. This is actually an Oak Beauty, a less interesting name but a more attractive moth. Sorry!

Look at how well its light colouring chimes with the stonework on our house. The stones differ slightly and the match would have been less exact if it had gone for one of the caramel-y ones which you can see on either side. Was this choice or chance? I have to say that I spotted its distinctive triangular shape immediately, so the camouflage was useless against humans. But birds' eyes work differently from ours.

Like many wintertime moths, it preferred to sleep outside the trap rather than go inside. The eggboxes are still only sparsely occupied but their residents in the last week included two species new for the year; a Dotted Border on the underneath of the transparent cowl and the curious little micro-moth Acleris Cristana. I call this the Lizard Moth because well-marked examples such as the one here (though you can get even brighter ones) look as though they have a lizard perching on their back.

This sequence of pictures shows the difficulty - for me at least - of photographing moths which initially choose to snooze on the trap's black plastic bowl. I got there in the end, even though the tiny moth escaped at one stage and moved to the shed window where it was even harder to photograph. When Penny saw these pictures she sapiently said: "Ah, you can tell which is the male and which is the female," her rationale being that the two moths on the right have their wings folded differently, just as men and women do with jackets (unaccountably to me; I must Google for the reason, is any). As it happens, the two moths are the same specimen so, although wrong, P has raised an interesting question: do individual moths fold their wings differently and if so why? Or is it random?

Cristana comes in more than 130 variations in the UK alone and is also very small - most unusually for me, I managed to get this one neatly alongside a ruler. These two things are among the reasons why micro-moths will never really get my attention or admiration.

Here in conclusion (at least so far as the moths are concerned) are some examples of my most frequent current caller, the Pale Brindled Beauty: a pair on the left and a single specimen from below and on top, above. Plus a Chestnut. Meanwhile I have interesting news from the sister world of butterflies. Yesterday, I saw my first Brimstone which is very early; and here is a Small Tortoiseshell hibernating in the bedroom where our one-year-old grandson will sleep with his Mum and Dad when such happy times are possible again. Like some especially wonderful moth, P and I are looking forward to getting to know him properly at last.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

A veritable horde


Sorry, I'm rather behind with this post which describes a multitude of moths, even a horde by February standards, which actually arrived on the night of the 15th/16th. I blame lockdown which - for us retired types - induces a pleasant lethargy and a feeling that there's all the time in the world. However, the children have started making initial murmurings about grandchildcare renewing in May or thereabouts, so this lotus-eating period is going to come to an end.

Anyway, the quartet of moths at the top are a welcome sight, four Small Brindled Beauties whose isosceles shape is at odds with the wider triangle formed by most regulars at this time of the year, such as the four Pale Brindled Beauties below. The Small BB is also less seldom found and has 'local' rather than 'common' status. Thank you for calling, Gents.

I say 'Gents' with confidence because the Brindled Beauty family all have flightless females. Looking like a cross between a brown ladybird and a woodlouse, they sit on tree trunks waiting for a mate, lay their eggs and die. Scientifically, this is reckoned an efficient example of natural selection as the female takes few risks and therefore tends to avoid harm. In terms of a life well-spent, however, it scores lower than the bottom of the scale.

My final moth is a Chestnut, whose dominant colouring makes a change from the Brindleds. Interestingly, it was the only moth apart from a solitary Pale Brindled Beauty which actually entered the trap and roosted in an egg box. The others were all on a wall nearby, most of them there by 11pm - when I took the torchlit photo, and all them snoozing undisturbed in the morning at 8am in spite of light drizzle.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Kitchen visitor


Things are inevitably very quiet in this icy spell but the gradual thaw which began this morning may bring better fortune. In the meanwhile, my second moth of the year crept into our kitchen a couple of nights ago. I hazarded a guess on the Upper Thames Moths blog that it might be Tortricodes alternella, the nearest resemblance I could find in the Micro-moth Bible.

UTM's generous expert Dave Wilton confirmed that I was right; a rather unusual occurrence. Meanwhile I have been disgracefully slow to report on the solitary moth which flew in to the trap the night after my last post, on 29th January. Here it is: a Pale Brindled Beauty, a species of no special beauty or fame but this one has the modest distinction of being my First Moth of 2021.

Friday, 29 January 2021

Helpful moths

It's been a while, with the weather mostly soaking or freezing, but I'm putting the trap out tonight to celebrate today's reports of the role of moths in fighting the pandemic. This is a specialised subject and not a field in which you want a scrap of misleading information, but detailed reports on the Novavax vaccine explain things - for example this one in the US magazine Science from which the diagram above also comes. Thank you!

The method actually goes back a long way, as the article explains, and here's hoping that the apparent good news from the vaccine trials continues. But that apart, it is a reminder of how important all forms of studying the world in depth and detail can be. So let's hear it (again) for moths! And I very much hope that you and yours are safe, well and in good heart.

Thursday, 10 December 2020

A new moth trap


I have not been running the moth trap recently because of the cold and damp, though it may play a part in our Christmas illuminations. We tend to organise these later than most people these days, after childhoods when dressing the tree was an eagerly-awaited part of Christmas Eve, though it then stayed up for the full twelve days of celebration.

On a doorstep visit to the grandchildren this week, however, my moth-minded granddaughter immediately asked me: "What moths are you getting, Grandpa." And lo and behold, last night her answer was delivered by our porch light. Satisfactorily, it was her seventh birthday and at the peak of the insects' arrival, there were seven as shown by the red arrows above.

The Winter Moth is not a showy species as you can see from these close-ups of the seven, but it is an extremely interesting one. It uses its own body mechanisms to generate enough warmth to fly on frosty nights and during the dead of Winter, it is really the only UK moth you will see out and about, with the occasional odd exception.

Moreover, the female is one of the country's flightless moths, which always seems a shame to someone like me, who wishes that humans could fly unaided, but is actually less demanding and more comfortable from the insects' point of view. Like bedbound inmates of care homes, they spend their lives in cosy niches of tree trunks, waiting to be visited by a male and then laying lots of eggs. The future of many of these is less enjoyable. Millions end up as food for tits which time their breeding to coincide with the moths'.

Here's an enlarged version of one of the moths, with flash above and showing its resting stance in the shadows from our porch lamp below. It is rather remarkable that such a slender, fragile insect can summon up the heat and energy to fly in the freeze. Studies have shown that it can take the moths half-an-hour to warm up enough to take off.  Once flying, their wing movements produce additional heat.

I cheered up a couple of them a few years ago and append them here again, as a seasonal treat.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Lucky 13

A couple of much milder nights have shown that moths may only be around in limited numbers so far as species are concerned but within each species, the guest-list can still be healthy. Yesterday, for example, no fewer than 13 December Moths paid me a call, nine inside the light-trap and four on the wall of the house nearby.

Here they are in various poses, one of them displaying the fine 'TV aerial' antennae which are as much a feature of the species as its lovely fur coat. Usually moths unfold their antennae when I tickle or otherwise disturb them, but this chap was already on the qui vive.

Meanwhile, our porch light is acting as a minor moth trap, particularly where Winter Moths are concerned. Checking outside lights is always an interesting diversion which anyone can do, as Conehead notes in commenting on my last post.  A useful extra is when a window is involved, as you can photograph the moth from both sides (provided your windows are reasonably clean).

My last moths are a pair of Winters, this time on the wall along with the quartet of Decembers. 

Elsewhere in the natural world, our many squirrels are foraging energetically at the moment; and we used up our last nasturtium flowers by stuffing them with goats' cheese, anchovy essence and capers. Yum!