August 2018: Nature Watch

July 31 2018

On hot summer nights a strange light can be seen in our garden.

The lower leaves of the apple tree and the hazel shine like an emerald chandelier against the darkness, lit by the brilliant light of the moth trap. In the morning the moths are identified and then the next night (with the light switched off) they emerge and go on their way. We have recorded over 700 species in our garden and one or two new species turn up each summer month – people often gasp at the numbers. 

Moth myths abound: they eat your clothes, they only fly at night, they are brown and dull, they are weak and floppy...  Well, the Case-bearing clothes moth is not my favourite, I admit (jumpers have been ruined) but that is the only moth that eats your clothes out of the 2,500+ species on the British list. It is the larvae (i.e. the caterpillars) that cause the trouble in the wardrobe department, and, adding insult to injury, they wear little silken jumpers themselves (the “case” referred to in their name). As you might expect, most moth caterpillars eat plants but there are a few odd tastes out there – some eat fungi or lichen, some eat the detritus that accumulates in bird nests, some are aquatic and some even eat each other.  

There are 155 species of day-flying moths in Britain (compared to 60 butterflies) – another surprising statistic. Look out for the Garden Tiger, its forewings a bold combination of cream and brown and its hindwings a fierce orange-scarlet blotched with blue-black. Also very striking is the Small Purple and Gold: it is smaller than a thumbnail but its purple wings are flecked with gold and it shimmers in the sunshine like a precious fabric. However, most moths do fly at night - hence the moth trap – but very few are simply brown and dull. The Angle Shades and Silver Y are all flying now. The Silver Y proves that moths can also be tough. They migrate from Europe, flying by day and night; look out for them at dusk sipping nectar from garden flowers. The Peach Blossom is my favourite – its fanciful name is derived from the pink splashes on the wings (it eats bramble, not peach blossom!).

Finally there are many moths which adopt strange disguises. The Buff Tip looks like a short section of broken birch twig with silvery white wings rolled into a cylinder. The Chinese character is brown and white and holds itself in such a position that it is easily mistaken for a bird dropping. Both of these avoid predation with their disguises but the Red-belted Clearwing has transparent, black-veined wings and a black body with a red belt. It discourages predators with its off-putting wasp-like appearance – another day flier to look out for in the month of August.