Friday, 30 March 2012

How have bumble bees survived all these years?

No moths today. I'm giving them a rest. Instead, a Bee movie, after I heard a strange sound in our cellar. I thought it was vibration from Yorkshire Water's people who are replacing water pipes in our road (very skilfully and considerately); but then it turned into the unmistakable buzz of a baffled and frustrated bumble bee.

How does this species survive? I know that a human can't sensibly call an animal stupid, but it certainly is tempting with dear old bumblers. This one had got into a coffee mug and just couldn't get out. Unable to manage vertical lift-off like a Harrier jet, it couldn't work out how to align itself sideways and simply fly away.

We spend our summer decanting bumble bees out of our kitchen, after they fly in and batter hopelessly against the window panes. I remember meeting a cucumber grower from the East Riding who said that they did the same with her, although at least they proved useful in helping to pollinate her plants as they whizzed around.

I took the photo above but that didn't seem adequate. So settle back and admire my work - in the tradition of Cecil Bee De Mille...

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Mint choc chip

Eminent professors come in groups, like buses or the Fibonacci series of numbers about which I've suddenly become very knowledgeable. So it seems, anyway. Two posts ago I was able to show the lovely Purple Emperor pictures taken by Prof David Colquhoun of University College London. Now Prof Matthew Gandy from the geography department at the same university has emailed.

He was prompted by my rooftop adventuring in London, where moths proved barren for me but certainly not for him. He has just found this beautiful little micro-moth called Acleris literana in Hackney. I must tell my younger son Olly, who lives there. Don't you think it looks like a mint choc chip ice cream flake? Some are more of a browney colour, mind you. More like caramel choc chip, I guess (see picture right, just below).

Prof Gandy is setting up an excellent website called which I will add to my links. It shows him out with his net in 1983 in the Teifi valley where he found the rare and beautiful Scarce Burnished Brass (pic below). He may also have found myself, Penny and Olly's older brother Tom. We had a lovely holiday by the Teifi that summer.

Prof Gandy also reminds me that a new guide to British micro-moths is on its way with illustrations by the incomparable Richard Lewington who has done the ones in my Moth Bible. The prof says: "It will transform the field for those interested in 'smaller moths'." Eyesight permitting, that will be just in time for my retirement.

I have pinched the pics of the gree Acleris and the SBB for this post from the lovely Hampshire moths website and the caramelly Acleris from the excellent Dumfries and Galloway moths website with many thanks and recommendations for all readers to visit. The green Acleris was photographed by Mike Wall, the SBB by Glynne Evans and the caramelly by Lisa Ferguson.

btw the Guardian Northerner blog post about moth-ing on the Guardian roof is currently in the Top Ten most-viewed UK news articles on the paper's webset. Moth fever spreads, maybe.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Quaker meeting

George Fox instructed his fellow Quakers to 'walk cheerfully over the world, looking for that of God in others', an appealing policy which I try to follow with the moth trap. You learn something new and encouraging from it every day, and today I have learned more about - appropriately - Common Quakers.

When I first saw this one nestled in its eggbox, I thought: 'Ah, something different at last,' because for several weeks now, the catch has been dominated by Common, Small and Twin-spot Quakers. But after studying Waring, Townsend and Lewington plus images online for ages, I realise that it is... just another Common Quaker.

Some have that striking line across their wings, like a Mongolian bow; others, such as the one in my second picture have it faintly, and a third group - shown in previous posts this month - don't show it at all. So here is another example of the great variety found in mothwing colours and patterns, to the extent that 'new' species are sometimes 'discovered' in old collections of the insects when an investigator more patient and diligent than me takes a close look.

The second moth, incidentally, complicates matters further by having suffered some sort an encounter - with a bush, bat, bird or other moth - which has rubbed scales off a patch in the middle of its wings.

Also visiting last night and shown below: an ichneumon wasp which reminds me of Pete & Dud's 'spindlier than Mabel Grindley, more spotty than Spotty Muldoon'; a March moth, the same species which started this year's blog; and another pug for me to sort out over my morning tea.

Update: check out Martin's Harvey's helpful comment which reveals that my 'March moth' is actually the micro Diurnea fagella which I should have known because I wrote about a previous one just a few days ago. Mind you its colouring was clearer. Marin also suggests Brindled Pug for the little beast and I think that's right. Many thanks.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

An emperor alights

The year's first butterfly came skimming over to join Penny and me for a sandwich lunch in the sunshine yesterday. It was a Peacock, a hibernator woken from its winter slumbers by the exceptionally warm weather. Its appearance was well-timed, too, because I had just been emailed these wonderful pictures of a Purple Emperor by Prof David Colquhoun of University College London whom I met with his wife Margaret at the Guardian Open Weekend.

He writes a fascinating blog called DC's Improbable Science which you can link to here and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society. So I'm specially proud, as someone who failed Physics with Chemistry O level (coming in the bottom two percent in the country according to my irate teachers at the time), that I helped him and Margaret with the complexities of the temporary car park.

He is a lucky man. He came across his Emperor quite by chance beside the Grand Union canal - at Deep Denham lock, he is almost sure - in July 2011. This is also appropriate for me, because one reason for my appalling performance in Phys with Chem is that there was a question about a barge displacing water in a canal lock which I couldn't understand. So I just drew a picture of a barge in a lock. (Quite a good one, because I did pass in Art, even at A level). Thanks very much to the Prof for allowing me to use his magnificent pics.

Update: Patrick my expert butterfly colleague has consulted his fellow-experts and is pretty sure that this is the first Purple Emperor to be recorded within the M25 London ring road. It was only a wingbeat inside that noisy boundary, but significant nonetheless. Prof Colquhoun's original blog entry is here.

PS: Sorry, I messed up on the links initially, duplicating the http thing, but they work now.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The spider and the fly. But not the moth...

Back home at last!

Sorry for the delay in reporting on my exciting foray on the roof of Guardian HQ. It was definitely exciting in terms of topography and views. Less so in terms of moths. My doubts about the sheer amount of light, height, wind and chill were borne out. I trapped a spider and a fly - see below - but nothing else.

That didn't render the whole project pointless. Far from it. Apart from the fun of the escapade, it is always useful to prove a negative. I had to get the PAT-testing done, drive down to London in a car packed with bubblewrap to preserve the lightbulb, and put my excellent colleagues at Guardian HQ to some trouble to organise roof access. But it was nothing like as complicated as Professor E B Ford's ascent beneath an RAF balloon just after the Second World War to look for moths at 1000ft up. He found just three but reckoned that it was worth it, especially if others kept trying high altitude surveys. So maybe I've done my little bit in that regard.

And my colleagues much enjoyed it. Here they are: first administrative mastermind Carla Dowling, above, and then two of her temporary colleagues, Doris Boye and Lianne Byrne, below. The Open Weekend had a really friendly feeling to it, and that was very much down to them and the rest of the cheery, welcoming team.

Now here we are on the roof in the morning with my debating adversary Patrick 'Butterfly' Barker, author of the excellent The Butterfly Isles, and a security colleague of Garth, who took me up to set the trap the night before. In the daylight, Patrick and I realised that what in the dark had seemed to be a strip of gungy soil and some inexplicable rounds of broken concrete were the Guardian's 'green roof' and nesting pyramids for Black Redstarts and other urban birds. Here's another view:

I wonder if anyone is monitoring them. I posted about the trapping not only on our Guardian Northerner blog but also on the paper's Environment one; so maybe my colleagues there will know more about these roof arrangements and their effectiveness or otherwise. Then I high-tailed it back to Leeds, the real home of UK moths, sensible as they are.

You can see the results of last night's trapping here, above - the bulk of over 60 moths, mostly Quakers but including the Early Grey and pug moth (which I'll check up on later - see at bottom) below. And this lovely Herald, left, which was sitting on the outside struts of the lamp and cheered me up mightily, compared with the barren scene which had greeted us in London town the morning before. And now I must go and put the trap out for tonight...

Update before bedtime: it's a Double-striped Pug.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Ooh look! It's the Post Office Tower...

Yes, the trap is sprung. Here it is on the roof of the Guardian's London Palace, King's Place, with the Post Office Tower twinkling in the distance and the shiny new St Pancras nearer to hand. Garth the very nice security man gave me a hand, and tomorrow morning I'll go an see if anything has arrived.

I'm not getting over-excited. The light pollution in London has to be seen to be believed. Garth and I gazed at Jupiter and Venus, riding in the sky together close to a sickle moon, but they were nothing like they are on the outskirts of Leeds. It was also quite chilly on the roof and a bit breezy, and of course it's very high. Here's the trap again, with flash.

Fingers crossed, anyway. And even if I don't catch any moths to show off in my duel with Patrick, I have other weapons. Here's a preview of my Tiny Book of Mothly Virtues, hand-crafted for the Guardian's Open Weekend, and phials of rum-and-treacle mixture for keen Guardianistas to try, Blue Peter style, at home.

Update: I tried to post this last night but my dongle didn't seem to attract enough wifi to upload the pics, if that's the right terminology So now I'm having a morning coffee and then sallying forth to inspect the trap. Hope readers haven't forgotten the lost hour. Spring forward; fall back.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The year's first butterflies

Tomorrow sees me debating the merits of moths and butterflies with my excellent colleague Patrick Barkham at the Guardian.

As an omen, possibly of doom, I saw my first butterflies of 2012 yesterday. Penny and I were down in Oxfordshire and the weather was like July, as indeed it was the day before in Manchester where I was working. I didn't have the moth trap, although it will be all bundled up and London-bound later today; but the floodlights on the lovely old Thames bridge by the lovely and friendly Rose Revived formed an unofficial one, as per my rather unenlightening picture here.

There were only a few tinies jinking about when we had a look at 11pm. But yesterday morning in the allotments at Longworth, the butterflies were about. A Brimstone was energetically exploring, a Small Tortoiseshell swooped around the churchyard and a Small or possibly Green-veined White disappeared down a well-kept ginnel past an admonitory notice about dog dirt. Butterflies have a deplorable fondness for faeces, but there's quite enough in the fields for them.

Three years ago, we were engulfed in flocks of Brimstones not far from here, at Tadpole bridge a little higher up the Thames. I wasn't clever enough to get a picture of yesterday's, but here's a Tadpole one. Some say that the term 'butterfly' comes from the Brimstone, as the 'butter-coloured fly' which is often the earliest on the wing in the UK. Since this a moth blog, here's a little picture of the Brimstone Moth too, right, (although don't show it to Patrick, because in this case the butterfly is clearly the winner).

Friday, 23 March 2012

Meanwhile in Mexico...

My elder son Tom is The Economist's correspondent in Central America which is incredible from the moth point of view, not that he or our lovely daughter-in-law Abi are quite as crazed about the insects as I am. But they kindly send despatches when they find something exotic on the wing or at rest, and last year they took Penny and me to see the Monarch butterfly migration which I had always dreamed of doing.

And now look at this - 'the Terrible Moth of Chiapas', as Tom calls it - from the southernmost Mexican state where he is on an assignment. I have no idea what it is but will attempt to find out; or if a moth person from the New World passes this way, maybe they could very kindly tell me. Oak Eggarish on a grand scale, is the best I can do.

Abi meanwhile was in Mexico City when the 7.4 Richter scale earthquake struck, and as the Guardian report memorably put it, buildings cracked and people rushed out in panic because the city stands in part on the former lake of Montezuma's capital and the ground is 'like jelly'. She is fine and so is their building, thank goodness. And so, I hope, are the local moths. Tom was struck by the antennae on this one; can they detect distant tremors, I wonder?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Incy wincy...

First trapping for a while last night, what with Mothering Sunday commitments and all the business of Pat testing the lamp for its London excursion on Saturday night. Nothing special to report though; the Modest Brethren are still very much about - Quakers of varying sorts and a trio Hebrew Characters - but an Oak Beauty put in an appearance too.

There was an interesting couple of Common Quakers, shown just above, the one on the left with a prominent white stripe which could be bird strike or maybe an encounter with a bramble or twig. The Twin-spot Quaker pictured at the top of this post meanwhile found an unusual nook, on the very end of the bulb-holder. Maybe it was Pat testing too.

And then there was this, above. Had I found one of the flightless females of early Spring moths, as described several posts ago? Whatever it was, it was upside down, so I carefully decanted it from its bit of eggbox. Wheee! Off it zoomed, below, faster than a moth because it had eight legs and not six. Yep, it was a spider. They seldom visit the trap but this one had got in and dozed off as thoroughly as any moth.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A PAT on the trap

No moths last night because I didn't switch on the light, but the trap has attracted half-a-dozen other small visitors. They are PAT-test approval stickers, PAT standing for Portable Appliance Test.

This exciting development is thanks to Kevin Hill, seen here hard at work, who added the moth trap to a morning replacing a couple of more everyday but dodgy fittings in the Wainwright home. He's a very nice and expert electrician and I would link to his email except that he says he has more than enough on. But if that changes I'll let you know.

This was his first moth trap encounter, however, and ditto for his wife Elizabeth who has had an interesting career spanning telecoms, the RAF and other work. Maybe they will invest in a moth trap themselves one day, or even make their own. I've always liked the fact that my gadget, known grandly as the Robinson Trap, is the work of a husband and wife team.

You can read more about it and alternatives here on the website of Watkins & Doncaster, entomological suppliers so venerable that I used to save up for bits and bobs from them when I was a primary schoolboy. Indeed they go back to my late grandparents' youth.

Why all this to-do? Because in three days' time, the trap will beam from the roof of the Guardian's London headquarters at King's Place, to help a talk I am giving on Sunday morning with my excellent butterfly colleague Patrick Barkham on Sunday morning.

Monday, 19 March 2012

No, it isn't summer yet

A sharp reminder this morning that we're only in mid-March. Look, the lawn's gone white. Although it was warm and sunny yesterday, the night saw a heavy frost.

This sabotaged my ploy of putting the trap in a mass of heather, to test whether the combination of honey scent with the light would add to the number of arrivals. I don't think there was much honey scent as the cold clamped down. Only six Common Quakers, three Small Quakers, three Clouded Drabs and this Hebrew Character moth below made it to the eggboxes.

As you can see from the wear and tear, new boxes are badly needed. Penny is working out a helpful food menu for the week starting with eggybread in an hour or so's time. That's also known as French Toast (and no doubt in France as pain grille Anglais).

Sunday, 18 March 2012

MOTHers Day!

Not a post for entomologists today, I'm afraid. We were away yesterday and most of last night, so the trap stayed dark and the female moths of north west Leeds celebrated Mother's Eve undisturbed (except no doubt by the males).

But I thought we should respect Mother's Day here and so I Google-imaged 'Moth Woman' and 'Moth Girl' with startling results. Some of them are not fit to reproduce in a family blog, but the subject clearly appeals to creative people. This one is from a shopping website called Zazzle which has a bigger picture showing the traditional moth-to-the-flame more clearly.

Apart from the small selection here, there are hundreds of pictures including quite a few from a publishing company devoted to stories by an Australian artist, Deborah Klein, about insects, including moth-women vigilantes. Try this taster: 'Turn the pages of this little book and discover other worlds, where mysterious women disguised in moth masks appear under cover of darkness...' The mothwoman on the right, meanwhile, is by New York illustrator Liza Corbett.

I like this picture, too, from Flickr by Ben Levin, which manages to link a conventionally alluring moth girl with women's ancient fears involving moths and clothes. Thanks for the pics and love and honour to you all, dear mothers, on your special day.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Big country, little moth

Howdy folks! I've hoisted Old Glory today because the interesting 'Stats' page which Blogspot provides (and which I only discovered towards the end of last year) shows me that over the winter the United States has secretly seized control of Martin's Moths and now provides its biggest readership. Hooray!

I bumble away here mostly for my own pleasure, but it is enjoyable occasionally peeping at the world map on Stats and seeing the amazing range of countries which clock in from time to time. Many thanks and you are always warmly welcome.

In honour of your big country, Amnericans, here is a very small moth. It belongs to the large and confusing Tortrix family whose name appears to come from the Latin for 'twist', the same root as 'torque' as in women's fashion and engineering. The nearest similar one I've found so far is the Leaf-roller Tortrix although that usually flies in Summer and so this would either be a tough survivor or an early hatch. Here it is again, closer-up. Lovely, if small, like the UK.

We have had a very mild winter and a lovely Spring so far, but if any passing Tortrix expert from any of the countries which tune in here has better information, that would be great. Bye for now pardners. On which score, here's an update: my good and learned friend Ben Sale whose own moth blog is in my links and much-valued, has come to my rescue again. See his comment by clicking below.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A brown (and grey) moth in a green shade

Lots of moths in the trap last night but nothing out of the ordinary. Except that as I decanted them - about 25 Common Quakers, 20 Small Quakers, 15 Clouded Drabs, five Hebrew Characters and a Satellite - I thought to myself: be fair. They aren't really 'ordinary' at all.

I'll prove the point, I hope, with these two pictures of 'small, dull' moths which show how lovely their patterning is, however low-key the background colour and overall effect. Both have helped by settling on areas of green which help to show off their modest beauty. Above is a Common Quaker and below a Clouded Drab - the dark moth on the right - with a Small Quaker keeping it company. You can click on the pics to make them bigger and study the delicate patterns in more detail.

Tomorrow: an international revelation... (This is the blog's first ever Charles Dickens-like teaser between instalments.)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Ides (and moths) of March

Say Good Morning (or whatever) to Diurnea Fagella, a suitably Latin name for a visitor on the anniversary of Caesar's famous warning. I'm pleased to discover that it also has an unofficial English name which is also appropriate: the March Dagger.

This one is a melanic version, slightly darker than the dominant species and with clearer 'badger' markings of black and white. It must be under the impression that Yorkshire's factories are still belching out soot, which accounted for an enormous amount of melanism in insects in days gone by.

Here it is with my left thumb, because I suddenly thought that you'd not have any idea of its size. It could be enormous. But actually it's very small and indeed comes into the category of UK micromoths, which are a bit of a specialist study. Come retirement, maybe. Btw yes, I do bite my nails but not through stress. I just like the crunchiness of biting them.

In the macro-moth world, things continue to be generally modest and grey 'n' brown - eg this Hebrew Character checking out all the stuff about egg safety with a Small Quaker. Finally, after yesterday's moth-on-a-mountaintop, here's one (a Small Quaker again) appearing to crawl out from an eggbox cone, like some fearful war machine from a bunker.