Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Kindly light

Moths have always been my main interest so far as the hours of darkness are concerned, but we have another little creature in the UK which matches them for interest and delight. Behold the shining lights of some of our local glowworms, that amazing variety of beetle which seems unbelievably exotic amid our green - and often damp - fields.

Like many people, I suspect, I have always had the vague idea that glowworms are rare and predominantly found in the South or South West. The only time I have previously seen them was in Cornwall long ago. The work of the National Glowworm Survey run voluntarily and with great enthusiasm since 1990 by Robin Scagell and friends has transformed the picture. As their excellent website explains, there were thought to be fewer than a hundred glowworm sites in the UK when the survey started. Since then, hundreds more have been discovered and new ones are mapped every year.

I had no idea that we had them near our house until a friend who lives a couple of miles away posted some pictures of their colony on the local Facebook group. We decided to have a look for ourselves in nearby fields with a couple of younger and sharper-eyed friends. This promptly revealed one of the main reasons why  British glowworms' lights have been hidden under bushels: it requires willpower to haul yourself out of the armchair and head outside at 10.45pm. But you need the dark to spot the little beetles' lights, so we managed to jump this first hurdle and off we went.

The first field we checked out was barren and the second strip of grass alongside a copse was also dark. But we were happy chattering away and had gone in the right frame of mind - not really expecting success. Then one of our friends tugged her partner's sleeve and said: "Look there!" And down at the base of a clump of long grass, appearing to flicker as the stems waved about in a gently breeze, was a small but extremely bright light.

We found three more in the next 20 minutes, all females glowing from two of their lower abdominal segments in the hope of attracting a nearby male. The latter also glow but not so strongly and less often while the larvae can only manage to 'twinkle briefly', in the Glowworm.org.uk website's endearing phrase. So it's the females that you are likely to see - and from quite a distance. Penny spotted our fourth from at least 30 yards away. The website has copious advice and lots of terrific information and here's one of its maps with masses of dots where glowworms had been found up to 2006. If you have the energy and follow their advice on where to look, you have a good chance of enjoying a new Summer night-time experience. Leave them where they are, or their numbers may dwindle.

The light itself is caused by an enzyme oxydising a molecule, a process known as bioluminescence whose possible commercial and practical applications for humanity are the subject of much study. It is even possible in theory that self-illuminating trees could do the work of streetlamps but concerns about genetic modification have slowed progress. Meanwhile, don't you like the beetle's Linnean name Lampyris noctiluca which means Shining One (in classical Greek) Night Light (in Latin)  What fun the old namers had! It isn't a worm either, but that was the standard term for most things insect-like until the 18th century.

I am sorry that my night photos are not better but, as you may imagine, this was an extreme challenge for my iPhone. They give a correct impression, however, of the pattern of the lights - two bands and two dots - and here are a couple more which show one of the beetles with the help of flash. Goodness knows what the poor thing thought was happening but it kept its light on.

Since I'm straying from moths, I'll include a few other interesting encounters away from my usual subject, firstly a fine stag beetle which a Grandpa like myself was showing to his grandchildren by the Thames where we went for a swim on the hottest of last week's days. Then a Bee Orchid, the sixth species we've found here which probably completes our tally,  and a Red Admiral which took an interest in my shoes. The Admirals seem to have hatched a little earlier than usual this Summer, perhaps because of the long run of good weather.

Finally, my lawn-mowing yesterday disturbed this fine, plump grass snake in one of those coincidences which so fascinated the writer Arthur Koestler. Only an hour before, I had put the finishing touches to a set of serpentine roof struts which I have whittled for the grandchildren's treehouse.

Friday, 26 June 2020


The Drinker moth has a special place in my heart because its caterpillars were among the first I collected and looked-after in my schoolboy days. Handsome creatures with a satiny blue coat like Little Lord Fauntleroy, they are responsible for the moth's name because they climb long stalks of grass overnight and sip the dew in the morning. Watching one spin its cocoon and later hatch into an entirely-changed creature was a memorable experience.

The adult moth is a curious sight when at rest, with its prominent hairy snout giving it the air of a very small beaver adjusting to having a large and clumsy triangle formed by the folding wings. It also looks pretty heavy-duty in flight; here's one, below, poised for take-off after I disturbed the eggboxes. In the current, wonderfully warm weather, the moths are quite lively even at 6.30am.

We also had a Drinker flapping at our kitchen window last night - and that's a tip for any reader without a moth trap. Outside lights or well-lit rooms attract moths too, especially at this time of the year. It's worth having a check before you switch everything off and go to bed.

Now here's another favourite regular, I featured the Procul Harum moth, the White Satin, a few days ago. This is its companion, usually a few days later in making it's debut, the Yellow-tail. Seen simply at rest, you could easily confuse it with the White Satin, although its legs are plain white rather than chequered. But get a chance to look underneath or from behind, and you can see the distinctive appendage which gives it its name.

I gave this one a tickle or two to persuade it to show its tail and eventually it fluttered on to my dressing gown. That was when I remembered the glories of video and decided to make a mini-epic film to show the moth in all its glory.

There we are. And here's a still from the vid for you to linger over and, I hope, enjoy.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Midsummer Night moths

Midsummer is a wonderful time for moths. Small wonder that Shakespeare gave the name 'Moth' to one of Titania's fairy band (painted by Arthur Rackham, left). This year they - the moths, though maybe the fairies too - were out in strength on all three of the shortest nights whose sunset-to-sunrise lasted just under seven hours from 9.48pm to 4.46pm. Given the glow which stays in the sky for over an hour afterwards, often much longer, the moths have very long days in which to have a good sleep.

Here is a pot pourri of some of my visitors on the night of 20th June, headed in the top left-hand corner by one of the prettiest micros to visit me regularly: Lozotaeniodes formosana. Goodness what a cumbersome name! Proceeding clockwise, we then have a bright Barred Yellow, a Swallowtail - the ghost-like moth often caught in car headlamps or at kitchen windows in the Summer, a Drinker, fascinating creature of which more anon, a Coronet with its gloriously subtle shades of olive and mauve and a White Plume, or as one of my nieces calls it, the Spirit Moth.  She speaks wisely. The Greek word 'psyche' was used in ancient times to mean both 'butterfly' and the human soul.

The Coronet in particular repays a closer look, so here are some more pictures of the three which came to the trap that night. They also serve to show the light-based vagaries of digital photography, although these were different moths. A camera cannot lie, but it may mislead, which is one of the reasons why my ID efforts so often misfire.

My third compilation gives an even more striking example, because all three pictures are of the same moth, taken from different angles. I had a bit of a struggle sorting it out as a result but the top photo tallied exactly with the painting of a female Dark Umber by the amazingly skilful Richard Lewington in the Moth Bible. This is a moth which is classified as only locally common, but it faithfully comes to see more every year. Midsummer's Eve was its debut in 2020.

The night also saw the arrival of my second Riband Wave of the year, shown here below one of my favourite regulars, a Bloodvein. The Riband comes in two forms, one with the eponymous ribbon a darker shade than the rest of the wings and this version where the band is distinguished only by its edge lines.

The following night was equally rich in numbers and here is a selection.  Clockwise from the top left, please meet a Clouded Border, a Burnished Brass form juncta (with the darker patches separated by a strip of sheen), a Barred Fruit-tree Tortrix micro, aka Pandemis cerasana, a Privet Hawk, the UK's third-largest moth which delighted some passing neighbours, a Beautiful Hook-tip about which I have rhapsodised previously, and a Common but uncommonly lovely Emerald.

Finally, Midsummer Day also dawned in the eggboxes on this tiny spider with its huge egg sack. I await identification from iRecord. Alas, the days get gradually shorter now but who cares when the weather is so idyllic?

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Hawk Eye

One of the pleasures of moth mornings, as I go through the eggboxes, is catching a view of the guests from unexpected angles. Today's top picture makes the point with a Scarce Footman, a very frequent caller here in spite of its name. I glimpsed it head-on and was greatly struck. Mind you, it's an intriguing-looking creature from any point of view.

A wealth of Laura Ashley moths next, the Brimstone in the top left and below it, the faded Light Emerald (cf my comments yesterday on the short-lived green of the Emeralds) have already visited several times this year, as has the lovely little Single(!)-dotted Wave, bottom right. But the Common White Wave, top right, is new for the year. Welcome back.

The hawk moths continue to do brilliantly. As I went through the boxes, there was one, a Pine; then two , Pine + Elephant, and finally three, Pine + Elephant + Eyed. And as a taster for last night's moths, which I'll deal with first thing tomorrow, here's a fourth, making it Pine + Elephant + Eyed + Poplar. What a family they are.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Hiding the light

I hid the light under the proverbial bush last night, or rather between two bushes: our burgeoning potato crop and a mini-forest of Jerusalem Artichokes. The latter are interesting as a plant which is neither an artichoke nor has any connection with Jerusalem. Sorry to divert from moths, but its knobbly roots happen to taste identical to a Globe Artichoke's yummy flowerhead and its very tall yellow blooms resemble sunflowers - in Italian girasole ('turns to the sun' like the French equivalent tournesol) which our ancestors Anglicised into 'Jerusalem'.  I hope that helps in pub quizzes.

Anyway, sitting delightfully on a girasole leaf was the year's first Procul Harum moth - remember Nights in White Satin? This is a White Satin, a very pure-looking creature although, like all moths, its main interest during its short life will be reproduction. Below is a second newcomer for the year, a Light Arches, tucking itself comfortably into an eggbox cone. It has a rakish look, accentuated by the slanting eyes which we saw the other day in the slightly similar Clay.

Next, boldly obscuring the British egg lion, is a Riband Wave with a second perched on the edge of the trap bowl. The Waves are a small but - to me - often confusing family with quite small differences between the various species. But all are the epitome of grace.

You need no introduction to the Elephant Hawks but their almost everyday arrival in June never dulls the beauty of their colours for me. Here are an Elephant and a Small Elephant meeting on an eggbox. The latter's almost-glowing pink and orange wins the award by a narrow margin so far as I am concerned.

Here are three Mottled Beauties, a well-named moth whose complicated colours and patterning repays a long, close look. And below that, the simpler loveliness of a Brimstone, another regular whose vivid colours always brighten up the gloomy recesses of the trap bowl.

Finally, yet another newcomer for the year: a Common Emerald. common but glorious although that lovely green fades very quickly during the moth's brief adult life.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Biological warfare

I was doing a bit of work on the communal allotment before last night's extremely welcome rain and I noticed (a) blackfly on the otherwise thriving Globe Artichoke and (b) loads of ladybirds and their larvae on clumps of nettles. It seemed a good idea to bring these two sorts of insects together and I am hoping that the ladybirds had a feast.

The moths keep coming in goodly numbers though I gave the trap a rest last night, not wanting to black out our house with damp electrics short-circuiting. By contrast to the deluge, yesterday was gloriously sunny and I had a lovely time inspecting hosts of Marbled Whites and Ringlets on the generous field-edges up the lane which are full of wildflowers. I had not realised that female Marbled Whites have a delicious coffee-tinted underwing - when I saw the one in the picture, I thought I must have stumbled across an aberration.  Still learning at 70, eh!

Wandering back, I took this not-very-good photo of a Comma out of simple affection because, every year, one patrols exactly the same 100 yards of the verge.

Here is another new moth for my list, albeit not a rare one. On account of its unexciting livery, I've probably simply failed to notice a Mottled Rustic before.

And here are a couple of Smoky Wainscots and a pair of fledglings illustrating the hazards of growing up near a house with lots of big windows. Both survived, I'm glad to say, but we do get too many fatalities and we're working on ways of improving things (while still allowing ourselves to see out).