A scarce Merveille du Jour. The Eyed Hawkmoth.
Most readers will be familiar with the butterflies which we find in our gardens. This is not too difficult, as the ones we are likely to see here only amount to around a couple of dozen. (Only one small gripe – I do wish people would stop referring to the ‘Cabbage White’. There are in fact three distinct species of ‘whites’ found in this area, none of which is actually called a Cabbage White, and the caterpillars of two of them feed on cabbages and other brassicas. Try and learn the difference between them!)
Moths, however, are often dismissed, either as tiresome insects that ruin our clothes, or else are rather drab, night-flying relations of our butterflies. The purpose of these few notes is to try and dispel this false notion and to provide a brief introduction to a fascinating group of insects.
About 2,500 different species of moths have been recorded in the British Isles. About two thirds of these are classed as ‘micros’ (or microlepidoptera), the majority of which, as the name implies, are extremely small and only of real interest to serious collectors. Some 900 British moths, however, fall into the category of ‘macros’ (or macrolepidoptera), and many of these are just as colourful as our butterflies.
So, you may well ask, how do I begin? Well, here are some suggestions:
1) First of all, buy a book that illustrates as many species of ‘macros’ as possible. The best one, in my view, is Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland, by Waring and Townsend, ISBN 0 9531399 2 1 (paperback).
2) Try your hand at ‘sugaring’. This was the old-fashioned method of catching moths before the advent of moth traps. Prepare a mixture of stale beer, vanilla essence, rum and dark brown sugar, and keep it in an airtight jar. Venture forth on a still moonless evening and apply liberal amounts with a paint brush to fencing posts, tree trunks, etc. Then, go out again with a torch and collecting box and see what moths are sitting in an intoxicated state on your bait.
3) Think about buying a moth trap. A variety of models are available, ranging in price from around £100 to £300. Here, our Environmental Education Centre staff run a
The Five-Spot Burnet.
Robinson mercury vapour lamp on most nights during term time. I always know, when the school children are being shown, what creatures have been attracted to the trap during the night by all the screams of delight and amazement. Free catalogues of Lepidoptera equipment, including moth traps, can be obtained from Watkins & Doncaster (tel. 01580 753133).
4) I have my own trap, which I run periodically from the house, and between these two traps, with the help of local experts, we have recorded approximately 600 different species of moths over the past twenty years. If any of you would like to come along, with friends, children, or grandchildren, I will be only too pleased to arrange a date. Some moths, unlike butterflies, fly every month of the year, but the best time is around May to September. This is when you will almost certainly see some of the largest and most colourful species, particularly the Hawkmoths. One of these, the Death’s Head Hawkmoth, is not only the size of a mouse, but even squeaks like a mouse!
5) Each year The Daws Hall Trust organises a variety of adult courses, ranging from Dawn Chorus Walks to Fascinating Fungi. Next year we will certainly include a Moth Night and, if you let me have your name and address, I will be happy to send you particulars nearer the time. A modest charge is made for these courses, partly to pay the visiting experts who run these courses, and partly to help keep The Daws Hall Trust afloat.
Iain devotes much of his time to his Nature Reserve at Daws Hall, which continues to be visited by a large number of school children every year.