Sunday 6 November 2022

Throwing them into confusion

I spied the word 'moth' in a letter the other week to the Economist, the means by which Penny and I keep in touch with the world, along with Private Eye and the BBC website. It was in response to an article about bat radar, and described the clever counter-measures taken by a small number of moths.

I've come across this with our common-as-muck yellow underwings which have the remarkable ability to deflect and mislead the signals cleverly pinged out by eternally hungry bats. In 2006 for instance, research at Bristol University suggested that yellow underwings can tune their ears - extremely simple organs in moths - to hear the calls of an approaching bat more precisely. Scales on their wings were also found to absorb echo-location signals from the predators. The Bristolians see all manner of exciting developments potentially coming from this, including ultra lightweight sound-absorbing wallpaper.

I hadn't however heard of Druce's Moth, Melese laodamia, which mimics the bats' pulses and thus confuses the hunter long enough to dodge away. That's maybe because it flies only in Central and South America where it was discovered by one Herbert Druce in 1884. Less excusably, I had no idea until I read the letter in the Economist that the moth was the symbol of the Royal Air Force's electronic counter-measures squadron, No 306. A knowledgable airman must have suggested it along with the excellent Latin motto Confundemus, which translates as 'We will throw them into confusion'. RAF squadron pennants are a rich source of natural history- the RAF regiment 58 squadron, for example, has a spider and the motto 'Come who dares'. 

The importance of electronic warfare is sadly obvious in the current tragedy taking place in Ukraine, and it is encouraging to be reminded how much practical and useful knowledge can come from our humble hobby, apart from endless delight in the colour, patterns and behaviour of moths. Undoubtedly fresh discoveries lie in store and scientists like the ones in Bristol are busy looking for them.

Closer to home, my use of the trap is intermittent now because of the weather. Temperatures remain high and we even have a third generation delphinium about to flower, as well as plentiful Morning Glories and nasturtiums, but it is blessedly wet after the dry Summer. We still have a hosepipe ban in force, mind you. It takes an age for the exhausted aquifers to refill. 

A steady supply of moths keeps coming when the light is on, including some very fine Winter and November ones - I get hopelessly muddled by their slight differences. Here is a lovely example, followed by some more ordinary brethren.

And finally, a selection of other residents in the eggboxes: Meal moth micro, Pyralis farinalis (keep an eye on your packets of Corn Flakes), Common Plume micro, Emmelina monodactyla, Vestal, Blair's Shoulder-knot, Large Marbled Carpet and Red-green Carpet.

Saturday 5 November 2022

A long season


The Clifden Nonpareil, whose regular appearance here in the last four years has been the most exciting event of my moth trapping, is enjoying another excellent season. This one was tucked away in the eggboxes on Monday 17 October, much the latest date in my experience. I had a look at my records to compare notes with other enthusiasts on the Upper Thames Moths blog and here they are: 

2019 One on 19 September (my first ever)

2020 Three on 3 September followed by seven more, the last on 2 October. Annus mirabilis - the year March Botham entertained six in one evening.

2021 Three on 20 September

2022 One on 5 September and now this one.

My post prompted others to comment with Dave Wilton, the vastly-experienced blogmeister, saying that the whole CN season in Oxfordshire appeared to be later this year. To back him up, another trapper recorded one on October 26.

I took a short film of the marvellous visitor warming up before it took off to the safety of an oak tree. I haven't put the lamp out much since then, but who knows, another may still be around,.

The Nonpareil came with an interesting set of companions, yet another Box Tree moth - shudder if you have box hedges - and a fine Feathered Thorn, the first of this Autumn. Meanwhile in the world of the grandchildren, a Pale Tussock caterpillar has been captured and obligingly formed a nice cocoon inside an insect collecting box borrowed from a schoolfriend. 

The Pale Tussock has an interesting history, especially in the hop-growing world which by chance we visited last week. The excellent Hop Trail at Scotney Castle took us through the only hop farm owned by the National Trust, with the usual excellent info about the poles, the former owners' initials on the oast house vanes and the crude little corrugated iron hamlet in the woods where the pickers from London's East End used to spend the season. It was a sort of holiday, albeit back-breaking work for the grown-ups who included stiltwalkers to cut the top of the hop binds which curl 20 feet up the poles.

The place of the Pale Tussock in this was its role as a hazard. The caterpillar's fuzzy spines can give people a nasty rash and hops are its favourite food plant. The species were nick-named 'Hop Dogs' and they were as unpopular as the local farming children who ambushed the pickers at night in the woods as  they came back from the pub, pretending to be ghosts.  This tradition was ably upheld by the National Trust for Hallowe'en at Scotney, whose visiting little witches, ghosts and pumpkins were met with skeletons, spiders and a fountain dyed red to resemble blood into which they could (and did with relish) throw 'eyeballs' the size of tennis balls.

Here's a Pale Tussock which Penny and I found in an Open Garden back in March 2018 when I mused on the hop connection, including a link to an excellent hoppy website.

Visiting the grandchildren also gave Penny and me - and them - the chance of some excellent sightings of a Jay and a Cormorant holding its wings in that characteristic posture which is almost certainly a way of drying its wings: