Thursday, 31 July 2008

Seeing the light

Here is the trap being used last night. I've been trying to find out why moths are attracted to light and the answer seems to be that we don't yet know. This applies to a lot of things, don't you find? This Tuesday, I chaired a discussion of my colleague Alison Benjamin's excellent book A World Without Bees and we seemed to conclude there that bees' homing instinct remains a mystery. One day, maybe, they'll be able to tell us. My own limited observations suggest to me that moths are not attracted by light but thrown into confusion by it. There are two interesting passages in Prof Edmund Ford's masterly Moths (Collins New Naturalist series) and he knows masses about perception wavelengths and the like. He also carried out an experiment which I would much like to have joined. Together with Prof A C Hardy and with the help of the Royal Air Force, he made several balloon ascents at night to assess the effect of the moon on moths. Needless to say the weather didn't co-operate, but the intrepiud profs recorded three moths flying at 1000ft above the ground. Ford thought they didn't try to go all the way to the moon because of pressure in their ear drums. Like tiny divers but in reverse.

Lots more moth arrivals meanwhile, including three rather battered old Poplar Hawks. Also this Purple Thorn, with its toenail markings and 'butterfly' habit of folding its wings up above its back. And a Lesser Swallow Prominent, lean, keen-looking moths which remind me of racing cars. Admire my finger.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Former MP in moth drama

Proving its worth as a global communicator, this diary has brought me this moth photo from Michael Meadowcroft, the bold radical and former Liberal MP for West Leeds. He wondered what it was, and though I'm far from an oracle on these things, I don't think there's any doubt that this is a Scalloped Oak. They like urban gardens and Michael has one of those. Nowadays he goes round the world helping with elections in new democracies whose moths are the size of bats. I must ask him about the fascinating background. Is it a gong from Kazakhstan? The moth came into his house, and this is by far the best time of the year for looking out for similar interesting intruders in or around your own home. I came back very late from London last night and there were half-a-dozen moths whirling round the outside light which Penny had kindly left on. You can add to the excitement, specially if you have children, by mixing treacle with a hefty dose of rum and smearing it on tree trunks. It should attract moths who will be lolling about drunkenly in the morning. If your treacle has solidified from disuse, remember never to warm it up in the oven with the lid on. That is the way to blow up your kitchen.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Yes, they have merits

I know that I'm a bit dismissive of 'yellow underwings' and I apologise to them. It's just that they are so common. But they certainly have merits. These three could teach us a thing about parking at Yeadon Morrison's. They've lined up so neatly thanks to the fact that another eggbox was perched on top of this one in the trap, giving them the dark nook they enjoy. It's a textbook trio; the three main variations of Large Yellow Underwing - dappled, light brown and dark. You may also feel that this diary is a study of eggboxes and certainly I'd never noticed before that Sainsbury's use suffragette colours. Green, white, violet (for Give Women Votes). Actually it's grey rather than white really, and all sprinkled with minute, light-stunned flies, but there is no need to get complicated. Oh, and the answer to yesterday's question? The moth is bottom left, the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet. I thought it was just a Five-spot Burnet but they're rarer. Thanks to Jax Westmoreland of Yorkshire Butterflies for keeping me accurate.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Which one is the moth?

What a weekend! The sun came out and so did the butterflies. When people worry about how few butterflies they see, they might be better advised to complain about our damp and cloudy climate. Just a bit of warmth and sunshine, and we've Speckled Woods and skippers and Small Tortoiseshells everywhere. And day-flying moths too. There are a handful of these in Britain. I took these pictures in the garden yesterday and one of them is of a moth. Which? Answer tomorrow.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Powder blue

Loads of moths once more, but this sunny weekend is also proving marvellous for butterflies. Here's a Holly Blue which inspected us at lunchtime. It was joined in our Leeds garden by a Comma (the same bright, orangey-brown as fritillaries), Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Green-Veined Whites, Small Whites, Speckled Woods, Tortoiseshells and an enormous orange dragonfly. We had supper outside and at 9.30pm, when it was still very light, a Swallowtailed moth appeared and did some erratic loops and jinks as though drunk or only just woken up. Aeronautical engineers must draw interesting conclusions from the flight patterns of butterflies - mostly comparatively leisurely although sometimes very swift and powerful, and moths which tend to hurtle about all over the place.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Vaguely scientific

A bit more time at last. No need to head off early. Saturday morning. Yo! So I've spent a lot more time than usual on the trap, which last night I moved to a small, shady area of woodland. There were 149 moths, plus some not-so-drowsy escapes. I will need a lot more time for identification, but they included Scalloped Oak, Early Thorn, Light Emerald, Mother of Pearl, Swallowtailed, Peppered, Common Footman, Brimstone, 36 Large Yellow Underwings, large numbers of Beauties, Carpets and Pugs and plenty of micros. I observed one instructive thing: when I tipped the eggboxes into the thickest foliage I could find, to keep off the birds, I watched one moth - one of the Wainscots - creep deliberately and with much concentration further and further into the roots. The survival instinct. Anyway, here are two of the smallest visitors: I'm pretty sure that this is a Green Carpet, although neither of my photos captures the lovely, subtle green. The other is an excellent metallic micro, but don't ask me any more than that.
PS We've just had breakfast outside in the sun and the green moth had found its way to the table and was snoozing contentedly there. I've had another look, after almost squashing it under my coffee mug, and decided that after all it's a Green Pug. Sorry.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Cyrano de Motherac

The Snout moth is a nightly visitor at the moment. You can see how it got its name. This is the Pinocchio of moths. No, the Cyrano de Bergerac more likely, since its nose will never shrink, however truthful it may be. I haven't yet discovered why its palps should be so long nor why it has the ability to curl them up as shown in the smaller photographs. If you know, please share. Lots of other moths last night and also, unusually, a butterfly. I put the trap in a patch of long grass and it attracted a Meadow Brown.

Thursday, 24 July 2008


You have to laugh. I did, anyway, when I found this Elephant Hawk in the trap this morning. It reminds me of Archie and Mehitabel. It wasn't actually stuck, just comfortable in the hole which I'd torn by mistake in the eggbox a bit since. We had a clear and present danger this morning, in the shape of a wren. It's sussed that a massive breakfast is potentially available once the trap is cleared. I am having to roam further and further afield with the eggboxes to hide the moths from its beady glare.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

A small moth in a large world

I had another very early start today, to get up to the Northern tip of Cumbria by 9.30am, so I couldn't use the trap. Instead I took the camera to my destination, the RSPB reserve at Geltsdale which is pioneering non-shooting preservation of moorland. It's huge - 53 square km - but I can only bring you this tiny moth. It's a Silver-ground Carpet (thanks for the identification to the reserve's knowledgeable warden Dave O'Hara). I was hoping we might find an Emperor Moth caterpillar or cocoon, but the only other sightings were hosts of little grass moths, loads of Ringlet butterflies and - grandly, near the old coal mine manager's house in the middle of nowhere - a solitary Dark Green Fritillary. On the subject of identification, many thanks to Jax Westmoreland and her fellow experts at Butterfly Conservation Yorkshire (see one of my spanking new links, left) for confirming that the moth three entries below is indeed a Beautiful Golden Y.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Comer-in from the South

At last! A dry warm night, and consequently a trap full of moths. Five Peppereds, four Buff Arches, a wave of Waves (more on them soon), Footmen, masses of assorted yellow underwings and daggers, and dotted about amongst them, various little micro-moths whose identities I am saving for when I retire. The best, though, was this Scarce Silver Lines, a larger lookalike of the Green Silver Lines which I describe several entries below. This moth is described as 'local' in my trusty guidebook, which means fairly uncommon. But the book, published in 2003, noted that it seemed to have been moving North into Yorkshire gradually since 1980. I first recorded one on 15 July 2004 and again nine days later, but haven't had any in the trap since. I'm glad they've decided to stay.

Monday, 21 July 2008


Here's a couple of Large Yellow Underwings coyly hiding in the eggbox this morning. They squeeze into the cones - the only moths in my limited experience to have this habit. Click on the pic to see their beady eyes and hairy legs in monstrous detail. Quite a few other moths in the trap, in spite of a cold night. Light Emeralds, various 'waves' which have big wings and delicate patterns like those which the tide leaves on the sand, and a Snout. I really wanted to photo him (or her) to show you the long, turned-up 'nose' but the only picture I got was blurred. The moth was wide awake and jump and scooted off high up into a hedge. I suspect he or she'll be back.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

They need ID cards

Two distinctive moths today, but one of them shows the problems of identification, at least for me. The bottom one is a Buff Arches, no doubt about that. But the top one...? It has striking markings - I love the moths with 'metallic', shiny scales like this. But the trouble is, there are about ten types which have very similiar combinations of small silver dots and dashes. The best known is the Silver Y, whose wings carry just that: a silver 'Y'. From my book, this most closely resembles a Ni moth, but that is too rare to be in Leeds I fear. So my best guess is that it is a Beautiful Golden Y. But I am going to consult someone more knowledgeable and come back to you.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Crop circles

Time for another butterfly. This is a Ringlet in a wheatfield near West Tanfield where we stayed last night at the Bull. A top pub, under new management - lovely food, comfy rooms. Ringlets were everywhere along the path by the river Ure to Sleningford Mill and North Stainley, along with occasional Meadow Browns and Small Tortoiseshells. Masses of wild flowers too, which get far too many premature obituaries in the media. North Yorkshire county council deserves a gold medal for its standard of footpath maintenance and (discreet) signing. If you fancy a summer break, this is the place to go.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Rain. rain...

Why is it so wet? No trapping last night. I've got a rain cover but it's only a plastic disc which fits above the bulb and I don't like risking heavy downpours. Mercury vapour bulbs cost £10.65. Anyway, here for your delight is a picture (below) from earlier this week of a Green Arches preparing for take-off after being disturbed by me. I really like this moth. As you can (I hope) see, the green colouring is very subtle and all the better for that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you need to learn to look. Click on the pic to see it massive. While browsing pictures from that day on iPhoto, I found the other smaller photo. I've added it, because it may well be the Marbled (or Whatever) Minor from yesterday's entry, in rather better shape.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Kitchen chores, or bores

I think - hope - that this is the first boring picture of a moth I have posted. But I do so for a reason. I had another early start today, to get down to the Bradford & Bingley special shareholders' meeting in Sheffield, so no time to trap. But I was making my tea in the kitchen when I saw this moth on the sideboard. So that's one thing: look out for moths creeping indoors at this time of the year. The other is the matter of identification. This is a pretty battered moth, going bald like a monk on its thorax (the middle of the three insect body parts, between head and abdomen) and without a lot of scales on its wings. It poses a typical identification challenge. If there are entomologists reading this, do you agree with me that it's either a Marbled Minor, a Rufous Minor or a Tawny Marbled Minor? My book (see entry below) says the only way you can distinguish between these three is by checking out the genitalia. Poor moth. I drew the line at that.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Fag Ash Lil

The Buff Tip is another occasional visitor to my Mum's porch, and an enjoyably striking one. This one, though, came to the trap last night, albeit in a rather aloof way. Instead of tottering down the funnel and dozing off on the eggboxes with the others, it perched on a nearby bit of heather and went to sleep there. One of the chores with trapping at this time of the year is that you need to distribute the comatose moths round the garden in the morning to avoid them becoming a breakfast buffet for birds. But since the Buff Tip had been there, unmolested, for a couple of hours after birdsong time, I left it. Two hours later, it's still there, quite safe. The wonders of camouflage. Penny says it looks like a twig but I think the birds think it's the butt of some exotic cheroot.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Who's a clever boy, then?

Any self-publisher or blogger risks being thought of as a bit full of themselves. So let me answer the question in this entry's title right away: not me. I not only failed physics-with-chemistry O level but, according to one of my frustrated teachers, came in the bottom one percent in the country. Biology didn't even figure. No, the knowledge here comes largely from this wonderful book, which my wife gave me as a follow-up birthday present to the moth trap. It's published by British Wildlife Publishing and shows pretty well all Britain's moths in their usual resting positions (as opposed to older books which tend to show them 'set' - with their wings stiffly out in the manner of museum collections). It's still fiendishly difficult to identify quite a lot of them but Richard Lewington's paintings are astonishingly accurate. If you know a moth enthusiast, this is the gift to light up their eyes.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Vive la Republique!

Bonjour! It's Bastille Day, so here is a beautiful moth with a French name - the Scarce Merveille du Jour (© Rob Petley-Jones from the ever excellent website I've also found a beautiful green moth, and for once not in the light trap. This (below) is a Green Silver Lines which was roosting on my Mum's door when I went to collect her to have supper with us. We hastily made a collecting box out of a cheesy biscuit packet to nab it and take it home for photographing. Thus has the ditsribution of the species in Leeds been slightly affected by our domestic events. It's a female (the male has pink edges to the wings), so we may have started a colony here. If you have a porch light, btw, check for moths such as my Mum's, especially at this time of year.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Moths have swallowtails too

Yesterday's picture was a swallowtailed butterfly. Here is the Swallow-tailed Moth. Not as dramatic, but lovely nonetheless. They visit the trap most nights at the moment and this one is very unspoilt. Moths get a battering from their daily lives and at least half of the ones I catch have torn wings, faded colours or bald patches in their hair. The Swallow-tailed is one of the few moths you may come across and recognise in flight. It lollops around like a lost ghost, often not long after dusk.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Can moths save the world?

The answer to the question in the title of this entry is: Yes. There are loads of Iranians, Israelis, Brits and Zimbabweans who would get along famously if they stuck to moths (or the weather, footballing, gardening etc).
I collected in Zimbabwe in my gap year (1968, 17, goodness how long ago) and my students at Bernard Mizeki College in Marandellas, now Marandera, were far more interested in helping me find caterpillars than attending to my English and history 'lessons'. Mind you, we did eat the caterpillars as well and very nice they were, in the manner of crisps. Photographing this Scarce Swallowtail butterfly in Turkey last month had the same effect. Local people were greatly interested, and also knowledgeable and helpful in tracking other things down. The best example I had of this was on a family holiday in Italy when I was 16 and one evening, to my intense excitement, Convolvulus Hawk moths appeared round the village streetlamps. The lamps were much taller than I was, but the village mobilised a selection of ladders and people held them steady while I clambered up and waved my net about (it would be a camera now). Hawk Moths this size are as big as bats, so there was tremendous glee, enthusiasm and celebratory toasting all round. Luckily Convolvuluses can't make a squeak when you scare or catch them, as the even bigger Death's Head Hawk Moth can. Now there's a moth I'd really like to find one day.

Friday, 11 July 2008

A thoughtful moth

I switched on the trap at 4.10 this morning, an all time record. I'd just got back from the David Davis byelection count and it was a chance to see if moths were still about in the final hours of the night. Dawn had chased me the 60 miles from Kirk Ella and Haltemprice Leisure Centre, but I'd caught a few moths in my headlights. However, I didn't catch any in the trap.
So what's this in the picture? Well, I mentioned the other day that yellow underwings - not a species but a range of similar moths - are now about. They are much the most abundant of the moths I catch in Leeds. But they are difficult to photograph, partly because they creep right into the eggbox cones and also because their brightly coloured underwing is nearly always hidden when they are at rest.
How obliging, then, for this Large Yellow Underwing to (a) come into our kitchen and (b) expire with a little bit of underwing showing, like a petticoat. Charles Darwin, as a boy, said that he would only collect dead animals, because he so greatly disliked killing them. But how many dead animals do you see in the wild? He had to revise his ideas. If he hadn't, we might still be waiting for the Origin of Species.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Red and Green

It was another Noah's Ark-building night last night, so here's the Barred Red from Tuesday/Wednesday. It doesn't look like the Light Emerald (star of yesterday's entry) at first glance but they're actually closely related. Indeed, there's a variety of the Barred Red which is green, in the typically confusing way of British moths. In fact it's actually somewhat greener than the Light Emerald. I've hoiked a pic of it (© Matthias Biere ) off the excellent UK Moths website ( to show you. They've even got it on a bit of what looks suspiciously like Leyland Cypress (yuch) to me, to rub in the green side of things.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Washed out

Back in action with the trap at last, and I was expecting a miserable catch. Since Sunday, it's been wet, cold and generally the sort of weather which prompts the question: 'Who'd be a moth in Leeds?' Plenty of them, is the answer. Moths are above all seasonal, now is the start of their high season - here at any rate - and there were well over 100 dozing away in the eggboxes. For someone still in full time work, this means a temporary end to proper science. I haven't time to record more than 100 moths, alas. But a big, fresh-looking Poplar Hawk was in there, a Footman moth (more on them anon), plenty of Daggers and yellow underwings (which creep right into the eggbox 'pyramids' and are impossible to photograph), a Barred Red and much more. It's also the time of the Emerald moths, which I like. Here is a Light Emerald, seen from sideways in its eggy domain, plus a small one of another which settled on the inside of the trap's big plastic bowl. Emerald is a bit of a misnomer with this particular moth, I agree. But they can't be blamed in current circumstances for looking a bit washed out. Actually, like most green moths, their colour always fades rapidly after hatching. Green is more prone to this than any other colour, so far as insects are concerned. I will try to find out why.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Friends dropping in...

More rain. So more records of our villa neighbours in Turkey. It is amazing how much life goes on around us - Leeds has the same, albeit smaller and less vivid. I've just been to the International Mediaeval Congress here where a paper called 'The thousand tiny itinerants of St Guthlac's body' made the same point on an even more intimate scale. It reminded me of an excellent book I read years ago called 'The Life that Lives on Man' by Michael Alford Andrews, who also wrote that great study of the Andes, The Flight of the Condor. No condors in Turkey, but loads of excellent storks. We caught the crab incidentally, with meal leftovers (gristle, not the waste disapproved of by Gordon Brown). Or rather, it caught itself. We tied the bait to string, the crab grabbed it and refused to let go, even when hoisted on to dry land out of the stream which ran by the villa. We did the same with eels - another set of local inhabitants - but never actually landed any more than halfway out of the water. Thank Goodness.
The crab also prompted evolutionary thoughts. Back in the stream, it was set upon immediately by eels and terrapins who wanted the meat. But it fended them off and hoiked itself out of the water up an almost vertical stone wall, snuggled itself into a niche and finished its feast in peace.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Timeshare villa

I'm too tired to trap tonight and it looks like rain as well. So here are some of the other creatures which shared our Turkish villa. None of them bit us. Another selection tomorrow probably, as there's rather a lot of work to catch up on which also threatens to delay switching on the lamp. I'm afraid that I don't (yet) know what any of them are, in detail, and if any reader does and can tell me, I would be delighted.

Turkish delights

Hooray, I'm back. A bit groggily as not home til 4.30 this morning cos of delays, but Turkey was great & I bought a nice new pair of swimming trunks in Marmaris which have the homely name of 'Bradford'. Life seems easier for moths in Turkey - constant sun while we were there for a fortnight, whereas today in Leeds has (so far) seen clouds, sun, rain, thunder, lightning, torrents... The slightly blurred (sorry) moths in the pic are the Turkish equivalent of Jersey Tigers which roost unusually sociably and give their name to the various 'butterfly valleys' in Turkey and Greece. Their real glory is the scarlet underwing but you need much greater photographic skills than mine to capture that. It's a fine sight when you tug the ivy and they all flutter up.

Actually I did miraculously manage to get this related moth - the Turkish equivalent of our Light Crimson Underwing I think - to show its bloomers, Follies Bergere-style, as it took off from our porch. I hope that gives the idea.