Saturday, 4 October 2008

Don't miss next May's thrilling episode

OK, that's it, at least for this year. Dear regular readers, I'll be back in May when trapping starts again. If you've stumbled across this page, or been drawn to it by one of my innumerable email footnote plugs, then please read on - backwards and downwards - should you have time. You may be bored or fed up, or the world may have turned on its dark side for a while. If so, there's a surprising lot of fun and distraction to be had from studying moths. That's true too if you're cheerful and well, which I hope is the case.
For this last entry, I'll do a bit of swanking, though I'm afraid it takes us back to the dark ages of killing bottles and pins. Hard to imagine, now, that I could go on my own into a chemist's shop in Leeds at the age of 12 and chirpily ask for a bottle of killing fluid. And be given one. Anyway, the vivid butterfly in the top picture with the slashes of silver is the rarest I ever caught. I've still got it, as you can see, posed next to the keyboard on which I'm tapping now. It's the Charlotta variety of the Dark Green Fritillary. The standard type is the other butterfly shown, top in the top picture, bottom in the second. The topwings are harder to tell apart, although I remember realising that I'd got something different when I saw the keyhole marks on the border of the bottom wings.
I caught both butterflies above Kynance Cove in Cornwall on the very spot where Prof Edmund Ford made a famous capture of a Monarch, an American butterfly which very occasionally - and probably with the help of ships - makes it to the UK. Most excitingly, for me, the event was recounted to readers of the Yorkshire Evening Post by John Armitage, the wonderful man in charge of the natural history department of Leeds Museum at the time. I've mentioned him before but it bears repeating: he was a brilliant patron of young naturalists and also an exceptionally good forger of postage stamps.
So there we have it. Double-click on the ageing press cutting to read the full story. The last two pictures came my way years later, when I found more references to Charlotta, which was even known by the 19th century woman collector Letitia Jermyn in her 1836 manual, The Butterfly Collector's Vade Mecum, as 'The Queen of England Fritillary.' There's grand. The YEP article, incidentally, was the first time my name appeared in print, apart from class lists in the Bonny Babies' section of Leeds Children's Day 1951. It may be why I became a journalist.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Up in the air

I finally managed to achieve a summer-long ambition last night: hoicking the trap up on to a balcony for a (relatively) high-altitude survey. We made a screen of old towels to protect our kindly neighbours, but alas I'd left it too late. The night was cold and I switched the light off at 11.30pm because rain was forecast, although in the event it hasn't come. The result was a mere two moths. It wasn't a complete waste of time, though, because this one, our old friend the Green Carpet, behaved in a way which increases my interest in how and why moths react to light. Disturbed as I bumbled indoors clutching the trap, it flew fast and drunkenly round in circles, before collapsing on to a pile of books. It tried several times but was far too disorientated to escape. This seems to bear out suggestions that moths are not so much attracted to bright light as confused by it. I shall try to find out more next year. As patient, regular readers will know, I am specially fond of the colour green in moths, so here is another picture with the colour enhanced(ish) by flash. If you double click on it, you will see that the moth's tail, held upwards in that distinctive way, looks exactly like an old-fashioned shaving brush. PS Note Martin Harvey's kind and helpful Comment. This is a Red-Green Carpet, rather than a Green one. Sorry.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

View from a (temporary) prison

Penny thought this one was interesting, when I was flicking through the night's photos. On reflection, so do I. It's the moth's-eye view of the mercury vapour lamp from below - although, actually, it's more strictly the view a tiny human would have. Moths' eyes are very different from ours, with lots of lenses set like a honeycomb, as in this picsie below, courtesy of Mainland high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, which has an outstanding page on the subject. The world must be an enormous kaleidoscope to moths.
The big pic shows the only way out of my trap, at least until I creep out in the morning. If you imagine the lamp being on - and it is much too bright for a human to look at directly - you'll understand why the moths prefer to go off to sleep under the eggboxes. Here's another pic, with the same Plume Moth clinging dozily on like a letter T.
Actually there's very little in the trap now, and tonight will be my last session for 2008, provided the rain stays in Lancashire. Apart from the Plume, last night saw a few tattered veterans such as Orange Underwings and these two micros, which look like very small, ermine-clad members of the House of Lords heading off to vote in different lobbies.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A hundred up. Well, nearly...

I know I've mentioned, and indeed pictured, the famous Peppered Moth before. But here's another outing for it, to mark today's status as the International Day of Elderly People. I don't quite qualify for that, yet (see my exciting profile, left below), but it's getting closer. Anyway, I managed to sneak a bit about the Peppered Moth's distinguished place in gerontology and specifically the study of centenarians into the Guardian today. Rather than repeat it, here's the link: I was very pleased to find that all the moth people involved reacted extremely speedily, from Mark Parsons of Butterfly (and moth) Conservation and Ben Sherwood of the Linnean Society to the guru Dr Mike Majerus who is mentioned in the piece. He's also the author of the new Moths volume in the wonderful Collins New Naturalist series. He's done Ladybirds too, making him one of the few NN 'double' authors. My hero Prof Edmund Ford was another, writing both the original Moths, plus his great contribution, Butterflies. The other thing about the Peppered Moth is that it stars on innumerable internet references through its unsought role in the debate about 'creationism', in which opinions tend to be firm and furious. Dr Majerus has somewhat undermined the creationist belief that Peppered Moths are not found on tree trunks (relevant to the debate via the evolution of camouflage). In the most recent reference I found yesterday, his tally of such finds was 47.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Fingers crossed

There's an autumnal feel to the world this morning. Our Indian Summer seems to be ending and events in Washington don't exactly put Spring in the step. So here's a selection of Autumn colours in this Gatekeeper enjoying a late ragwort. I was in Buttermere last week, and much the same palette was wonderfully set out on a grander scale - the russet of dead bracken, the straw of dead grass and the vivid green of the meadows, with the giants of High Stile, High Crag and Red Pike caught in evening sunshine in the manner of this butterfly's wings.
Here too, is a symbolic moth for the day, which visited the trap earlier this summer. I don't know what it is. It doesn't seem to be in my moth book and I therefore suspect that it's a micro. But the distinct little symbol on its wings looks much like a Fingers Crossed. Stop Press: See Martin Harvey's expert comment.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Hide and seek

A brief report from London on the window-box caterpillars. Necessarily brief, because they have gone. Maybe a bird found them, but more likely, they've crawled off to pupate somewhere cosy and discreet, such as the gaps between the gutter and the top of my son's house's front wall. No chance of finding them, although I might ask Camden council for printouts of CCTV film. It would be a good test of digital enhancement. We Find Three Caterpillars On the Run would be an excellent advert for whoever makes the equipment. The Indian Summer continues, meanwhile, but not warmly enough for this Angle Shades which came into our kitchen yesterday and was spotted by Penny. Corners like this are perfect for pupating, which is an argument against dusting.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Vote Moth (and Moon)

Excitement reigns in the Wainwright household. Saturday's post brought this invitation: 'Would you like to join a moth and bat walk taking place through the Parliamentary estate on 14th October?' Indeed I would. Given the state of world affairs, it may sound like Drake playing bowls while the Armada batted along the Channel, but then look what happened to (a) Drake and (b) the Armada. Checking out the Houses of Lords and Commons for moths - plus what the invite calls 'the opportunity to be photographed close-up with a bat' - will induce the correct sense of calm to cope with crisis.
The main spirit behind the event is an excellent MP called Madeleine Moon. She runs a moth trap at Westminster and fights a sturdy battle in the chamber on behalf of moths. In one speech, she observed that "the statistic that 50 billion moths are required to feed the blue tit population of the UK is staggering", and indeed it is. Where does that figure come from? I shall ask her if I can make the walk. This blog will have come to a temporary, seasonal halt by then, but I shall revive it in her honour. Meanwhile here is a picture of the Indian Moon Moth, courtesy of Danne's Animals website. We'll only find one of these tucked up in the Commons if there's been a recent Parliamentary exchange visit with the Far East. But maybe Madeleine has a picture of one (or the Japanese Moon Moth, the Indonesian Moon Moth, the Spanish Moon Moth or even the Madagascar Moon Moth) on her office door. If you live in Bridgend, vote for her. I would if I did.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Admirable signs

Red Admirals and Speckled Woods rule our butterfly roost these last, sunny days of summer. So I was chuffed to spot a pub called the Red Admiral yesterday, far away from Leeds on the Cumbrian coast. It's better known to older people under its former name of the Boonwood, in Gosforth near Seascale, which in turn is near the big nuclear plant at Sellafield which, as you probably know, is near Barrow.

You need a lot of 'near's to define places in quiet country areas like this. The discovery got me Googling for other Red Admiral pubs and there are plenty. Is there some sort of crossover with naval heroes, who often decorate pub signs? One of the ranks in the old Royal Navy (we're talking Hornblower and Lord Nelson, now) was based on the red ensign, so your official title might be Rear Admiral of the Red. The best web page I found involved the Red Admiral in Runcorn, known locally as the Addy, where there's a vigorous online debate between critics and partisans of the current landlord. Is it a top pub, as some say, or a bad joke (the dissenting view). Click on and join in.
Moth pub signs? Well, there are several Gipsy Moths and one or two Tiger Moths. But they honour a yacht and a biplane. Genuine insect discoveries welcome.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Can they read?

My eggboxes are coming to the end of their unnatural lives. As Christine Alvin says in one of the comments below, they are starting to look as hairy as sweaters in need of de-pilling. Another week and they will be in the bin and the trap will be cleaned and stored away til next April.
Meanwhile, here's a trio of moths apparently absorbed by the boxes' labelling and instructions. There are many of the latter. I wouldn't want to be an egg producer or retailer, having to remember and fill in where everything comes from and how old it is.
I've not got time to identify these three just now, but I can tell you that I thought that the animal in the middle picture was supposed to be a crocodile, a creature - like us - which enjoys an egg or two for breakfast. On closer inspection (click button) it is a rather odd and fierce-looking hen.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

View from below

During the course of this journal, I've managed to get one or two odd angles on moths to vary the usual form of photographing them from above. There was the Elephant Hawk emerging from an eggbox hole with a startled look on its face, and a lacewing ditto. Here's an unusual (for me) study of a couple of trap visitors seen from below, thanks to their courtesy in perching on the transparent collar which surrounds the mercury vapour light bulb. I can't say they are specially enlightening, except that you can see the positioning of their agile feet. These are vulnerable, and it's not uncommon to find a moth with one or more missing. It doesn't appear to affect them unduly. On that score, have you ever examined the feet of London pigeons? On second thoughts, and especially if you have a sensitive nature, don't.
Here too is a 'transparent' view of a moth which preferred the relative freedom and luxury of one of our lampshades to the trap. The delicacy even of the most common and, in this case, rather dowdy, governessy, even Jane Eyreish types of moth, is always a delight.

Hiding its light

Google did one of their imaginative twists on the search engine's name yesterday, with autumn leaves wrapped round the six letters. It was officially the first day of the season, although in fact, at last, we have an Indian summer, clear and sunny, albeit cold at night for moths. Still, the leaves are turning and now is the time when you will start discovering oddly old-leaf-looking creatures like the one in my first photograph, usually tucked behind curtains or somewhere that the duster seldom finds. This is a hibernating Peacock butterfly. The decent thing to do is to leave it to sleep. But if you want to entertain children, or teach them a parable about dullness sometimes concealing great beauty or worth, you can tickle the insect awake and goad it into opening its wings. Pow! What a contrast. See below.
Peacocks and Small Tortoisehells, which are equally superb above but boring underneath, are the two butterflies associated with the theatre superstition - that if a butterfly appears on stage before the opening night, all will go well. It is a comforter, rather than a superstition, because in an enormous, curtain-filled arena such as a theatre, there will almost always be a hibernating butterfly. Still, I remember reporting on just such an event at the Theatre Royal in Bath just before Sir Ian McKellen launched a brilliantly successful season there. So perhaps there's something in it.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Munching away

Good news about the London caterpillars (see entries some way below). There are now three. This is good news for them at least, and for me, their long-distance monitor in Leeds. Less good, maybe, for my son's nasturtiums, although their flowering season is approaching its end. And, as you can see, he sowed them rather generously for a mini windowbox, resulting in a miniature version of the plant which I think is a bit of a breakthrough for small-scale London windowsill gardening. Especially with nasturtiums. The less food they get, the more they flower, as opposed to producing big greeny-blue leaves. The caterpillars are named Trig, Trak and Bristol, in honour of the world's new No 1 Fun Person. Superficially, they look boring and green but click on the central picture below and you'll see that they have quite subtle colouring and markings. Can you spot them all in the big picture? It shouldn't be too long before they pupate, unless some pigeon with eagle eyes happens by. But that too would be interesting, in terms of how busy London supports so much wildlife. One of Britain's most unusual moth captures was made just down the road at Buckingham Palace: the Spiny Bollworm, a species only usually found in sub-Saharan Africa, which visited the Palace light trap in 1964, a few days after the Queen had played host to a State delegation from Tanzania.

Saturday, 20 September 2008


I've frequently mentioned my Moth Bible in this journal, and as the trapping season nears its end, I shall start turning to the book more nostalgically than practically, in the way that fellwalkers and climbers browse over guides beside their wintertime fires. If you want to do the same, here's the book's spine, for easy recognition among the amazing riches of today's big bookshops. I think it will be shelved like this. There aren't enough moth enthusiasts (yet) for it to get a Harry Potter-style display, or even have its full cover shown. Mind you, authors are always creeping into bookshops and moving their own books surreptitiously from spine to full-cover display. So let's do that with the noble trio of Waring, Townsend & Lewington. Meanwhile, here is a real-life version of the moth given the signal honour of decorating their book's spine. It's the Herald, and very handsome it is too, both in colouring and wings which valence like the roof of a rural railway halt. This one is heading down one of my eggbox cones much in the way I imagine a particle whips into the Large Hadron Collider. That's gone quiet, hasn't it? The media, eh...

Friday, 19 September 2008

Not so bad

People have started talking about a 'bad butterfly summer.' It's certainly been a bad summer generally, but as for butterflies, I disagree. Since I failed physics-with-chemistry O level and didn't even take biology, you can ignore me, but here is my reasoning. It has been a bad year for seeing butterflies. That does not mean that they are not there. In my own laboratory - our garden in Leeds - I have noticed how sunshine unfailingly brings out a good number of the 15-odd butterfly species which regularly visit. Rain and cold leads to their complete disappearance, but when the sun returns, so do they. Are the purveyors of the 'bad butterfly summer' theory going around looking for butterflies on the dull days (when the insects creep into crevices or under high-up leaves and are all but impossible to find?) I don't think so. I am sure that we consistently under-estimate the number of such things, and by so-doing add unnecessarily to the world's supply of gloom. Today's picture is part of my evidence. Late yesterday, the sun was confined to the top part of the west-facing wall of our house. There, sure enough, were the butterflies, including this coy Red Admiral. Earlier on in the day, when sunshine bathed the buddleias, they flocked there. They are as heliotropic as sunflowers, which the French commendably call tournesols.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Shock Horror Cannibal Moth Drama

Sorry, I've been a bit busy this morning and it was too cold to trap last night. But Lo, my colleague Jeevan Vasagar has come to the rescue. He's one of the News Editors steering the mighty ship Guardian at Farringdon Road, where interest in moths is commendably intense. He's just emailed me the following, which I print verbatim, if only to give you a taste of exciting news agency style.
I'm extremely jealous of mum-of-three Amanda Chittock. The Death's Head Hawk Moth is very high on my wish list, and to breed one from a caterpillar would be excellent indeed. Observe the pixies of both, above, courtesy of and Btw observe also, that I have discovered at last how to do italic and bold. Respect! Anyway, here we go...
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Rare monster caterpillars made famous by horror film The Silence of the Lambs have been found in a country garden.The two giant 6 inch-long Death's Head Hawk moth caterpillars were spotted by mum-of-three Amanda Chittock on a jasmine bush by her front door.
The strange-looking caterpillars, which have been nicknamed Hannibal and Lecter, are one of Europe's rarest breeds and only one moth has been seen in England this year. "It's a very exciting find. They are infrequent immigrants to the UK and very impressive beasts,"said Mark Parsons, head of moth conservation at Butterfly Conservation. "They are immigrants to the UK and don't usually survive as they need warmer weather."
The bright yellow and blue caterpillars, which usually feeds on potato plants, deadly nightshade and honey, are normally found more than 1,000 miles away in southern Europe and northern Africa. Mum-of-three Amanda, who lives in Rayne, Essex, has now given the rare creatures to her brother Paul Dawson, 38, who hopes they will hatch.
"They are the biggest caterpillars I have ever seen and have some really amazing markings," said Paul, a vehicle technician in Great Dunmow, Essex. "My sister was worried they would get eaten by a bird if she left them outside so we phoned a moth specialist to get some advice. I couldn't believe it when he said they were rare hawk moth caterpillars and that he had never seen them before. He was very excited.
"One of the caterpillars has now started to bury itself in dirt and hopefully it will hatch next spring." Adult moths, which can develop a seven-inch wingspan, have been spotted in Britian before, but the larvae, which can be yellow or green, have rarely been seen here. They pupate by burying themselves in soil and hatch some moths later as a spectacular moth.
Mark Parsons added: "Historically they have been found in Britain in greater numbers than in recent years. "In this case an adult female must have travelled here earlier in the year and laid eggs. The pupae need to be kept warm and there is a pretty good chance of them hatching next spring. They are marvellous creatures and it's a very lucky find."
According to superstition, the death's head hawk moth, Acherontia atropos, which has skull and crossbones markings on the back of the adult moth~s head and a loud squeak, was a harbinger of death, war and disease. In Europe its appearance in a candlelit room was considered an omen of death.
In France, dust from its wings was thought to cause blindness and in Poland, its strange cry was thought to be the moaning of a grief-stricken child. It is best known for featuring in the Oscar-winning flim Silence of the Lambs, when serial killer Hannibal Lecter, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, leaves the pupae of death's head hawk moths in the mouths of his victims.
An image of the moths was on all the promotional pictures.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

On the qui-vive

Victorian gents used to talk about a fine pair of whiskers. Here's a fine pair of antennae, on a Dusky Thorn moth. Antennae are one of the glories of British moths - hugely varied, unlike our butterflies' versions which are always club-shaped. They act as a sort of radar, helping steer flight, and also detecting members of the opposite sex with admirable accuracy. I was reading the other day about a pheromone trap, a rather mean way of catching moths which involves imprisoning a female in a muslin bag at a time when she is 'calling', the moth version of going out clubbing in a miniskirt and full warpaint. Her pheromones, a bundle of chemicals intoxicating for male moths, drift downwind, and antennae such as these are so sensitive that they will pick up a single molecule of this 'scent'. The Thorn family, incidentally, provide us with the August Thorn (very rare) and the September Thorn. Later in the year we may encounter the November Moth and the December Moth. But there is nothing for October. If anyone discovers a new British species (which still happens occasionally, even in our crowded world), maybe they would like to fill this gap. Below is the rest of the moth plus, as ever, an interesting close-up of an eggbox.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The gardener's friend

A welcome visitor to the trap last night. A lacewing. They are those delicate insects with long, transparent wings whose vein patterns look a little like lace and account for the name. They quite often come into the house to seek warmth at this time of year, changing their green colour to pink as the days get colder. This picture will have been one of the last things seen by countless aphids and other enemies of the diligent gardener. Lacewings are so fond of eating small pests that you can even buy them online, sometimes in mixed packs with ladybirds which do an equally good scavenging job. Lacewing larvae also eat aphids and have a nicely gruesome way of sneaking up on their prey. They disguise themselves with leftover bits of other aphids which they've just captured and eaten. Isn't Nature sweet? Click on the pic, btw, to see the lacewing's delightful face closer, plus the unexpected hairiness of ageing egg boxes. Maybe I should have a caption competition too, both for the lacewing and the other, smaller insect which is possibly being assessed as potential lunch.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Sweetly sleeping

In the last three months, I realise, we've discussed only two of the life stages of the moth, or butterfly. You've seen lots of adult insects and a few caterpillars. Here's the third stage: the chrysalis or pupa. I found them while cleaning out some flowerpots. Any crack or crevice at this time of the year may yield the same for you, specially in a shed or greenhouse or round the dustbins. My moth Bible even suggests that rural phone boxes and 'isolated lavatory blocks at campsites' are good places to look. I wouldn't go that far, but these apparently lifeless versions of the Egyptian mummy are amazing and fun to keep until they hatch. Inside those cases, two caterpillars are undergoing their extraordinary transformation into winged insects. With some chrysalises, the outer skin becomes partially transparent as the day of escape approaches, so that you can see the patterns and colouring inside, albeit squashed and vague in the way that things look through a frosted glass window. I've put them in a plastic box on our kitchen windowsill with some twigs inside for the moths to perch on as they dry and expand their wings - a process which takes half-an-hour or so and is wonderful to watch if your timing is lucky.
Here's another pic of one of the pupae, on the backdrop of the above-mentioned moth Bible's cover. I hope you are marvelling at the power of my Magnified Digital Photography. (No wobble...) If you click on either picture, you can see the wing cases of the pending moths and other details. Chrysalis, btw, comes from the Greek for gold, because many butterflies have strikingly spiky chrysalises ornamented with gold and silver dots. Pupa is from the Latin for a doll, which these do slightly resemble. They are not as inert as they look. If you squeeze them (very very gently), they flick their 'tails', the segmented horn in which the future insect's abdomen can be seen clearly. All we need now to complete the moth cycle, is to find some eggs. That's hard.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

How now, Lord Vader...

Back in Leeds, although I had to nip up to Kendal to give a talk, so the trap only started at 1am. But Lo! An interesting arrival. This is the Dark Lord of the Rustics, the Black Rustic. Isn't the patterning great? When you see it at first, your eye is caught by the golden toenail mark. I've magnified that in this first little pic.

But thanks to the power of digital cameras (may the Force be with them), you can see the hideous visage of Darth Vader lurking behind in the assorted shades of black and very dark grey. The shape is right too. Was this the inspiration for George Lucas great epic? Part of it, maybe.
Note also the three or four golden dots on the leading edge of the forewings. Ooooooooh! Shudder!

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Butterfly minds

One of the pleasures of London in the summer is the Serpentine pavilion, built anew every year by a leading architect. It's Frank Gehry's turn this year, he of the wonderful Fred & Ginger buildings in Prague which seem to be dancing together. As you can see from the smaller pic, Gehry's pavilion is partly inspired by butterflies' wings.
Hooray for that. I thought the roof was a bit chaotic myself (and, yes, one of the nice attendants confirmed that it had initially leaked). But the overall effect is very light and pleasant. There was even a butterfly in attendance, a Green-veined White sauntering beside the Serpentine, just as we were. Much the best butterfly building I know is Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York (how sad that they lost its lovely former name, Idlewild). My younger son, who is about to start his architecture diploma, once insisted that we see this during a rather tight flight changeover. I was a bit stressed at the time by dashing along ramps etc, but I'm very glad we did. I'm just goint to add small pics of that, and of the Fred & Ginger to complete this unusually architectural entry.