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Moth magic: Now's the time to get out to spot a much-misunderstood creature


By Hector MacKenzie

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Poplar hawk-moth.
Picture: Iain Leach.
Poplar hawk-moth. Picture: Iain Leach.

TAKE a night off from watching films and TV indoors and go out for the night – in your own back garden.

May is the perfect time to look out for moths as they emerge in gardens up and down the UK, but many of us never think to look for wildlife after the sun goes down.

So says Butterfly Conservation, the charity dedicated to conserving the UK’s moths and butterflies.

It says discovering moths at night provides a whole new way to learn about and appreciate the nature right on our doorsteps. And far from being brown and boring, May sees some of the most beautiful species emerge.

George Tordoff, senior moth ecologist at the charity, said: “As the nights warm up and spring really gets going, there are so many amazing moth species on the wing across the whole of the UK. Some of my favourites include the amazing sulphur yellow Brimstone which is often on the wing in gardens just before dusk, the beefy Poplar Hawk-moth with its thick antennae and scalloped wings, the Elephant Hawk-moth with its distinctive pink and green colouring and the bright White Ermine with its furry body and spray of black spots.”

“Moths are really important insects in our ecosystem and crucial indicators of the health of our environment. There are many species that have seen major declines in recent years, and we must do all we can to protect them. But first of all we have to see how brilliant they are for ourselves.”

There are several ways that you can hunt for moths in your own back garden. A great way is to use a moth trap which can be bought from suppliers like NHBS, however for people with a more general interest in nature and those working to a minimal budget, there are some other, cheaper options.

Elephant hawk-moth.
Elephant hawk-moth.

Mr Tordoff said: “If you’re a night owlthen the best way to lure some species to you is by hanging a large white sheet over a washing line or between two tree branches. Once it’s fully dark (from about 9.30pm), take a strong torch or camping lamp and shine the light at the sheet. Make sure this is done safely and that any children taking part have adult supervision. With a little patience some moths should come fluttering to the sheet. If they don’t rest for long, take a picture so that you can identify them later.

“For those that need to go to bed a bit earlier, particularly families with young children, you can make some sweet moth lures to attract species at dusk. Take half a bottle of red wine (a cheap one!) and 500g of sugar and heat in a pan, without boiling, until the sugar is dissolved. Find some strips of clean cotton cloth or thick cord and dip them in the mixture. Hang the strips over bushes, tree branches or a fence as darkness falls, then go out and check them with a torch.

“If nothing else, check your outdoor windowsills before you switch off the lights at night and you never know what you might find. For best results, leave the curtains open.”

What to spot

Here’s a list of 10 moth species to spot in your gardens.Go to Butterfly-conservation.org/moths for a full list of species and how to identify them. Don’t forget to show us your pictures on Butterfly Conservation’s social media channels @savebutterflies. You can also go to Butterfly-conservation.org/moths/whats-flying-tonight to find out what moths have been spotted in your local area and to help with identification.

If you don’t have a garden, or you don’t manage to capture any species of your own, watch online as Senior Surveys Officer Dr Zoë Randle takes us through the species that she finds in her moth trap and explains why moths matter so much to our environment.

Why are moths important?

Moths are often misunderstood, but they hold vital roles in the wildlife ecosystem. Although many people overlook them, moths are numerous and widespread, with over 2500 species in Britain living in a wide range of habitats. Since 1914 there have been 56 moth’s extinctions. Six of these have since recolonised or been re-found. The abundance of the UK’s larger moths has crashed during the past 40 years with three species becoming extinct since 2000.

Top 10 UK moths to spot

Puss moth (May – July)

A large white or greyish-white furry moth, the Puss moth is named after the cat-like appearance of the adult and can measure up to 70mm across. The female is generally larger and also differs in having a grey hindwing and sometimes forewing.

Brimstone moth (April – October)

An unmistakable yellow moth with chestnut-brown markings on the tips and along the leading edge of the forewings. They also have a white crescent or dash near the leading forewing edge. They can frequently be seen on the wing at dusk and they are regularly attracted to lighted windows.

Angle Shades (April – November)

A distinctive moth with pinkish-brown markings. The wings are folded at rest which gives the impression of a withered autumn leaf. The adults are attracted to light and feed on flowers of Common Reed and other grasses. They are frequently seen during the day, resting in the open, on walls, fences or vegetation.

Green Carpet (May – July)

Very common in gardens, these moths are greenest when they are freshly emerged. The adults are easily disturbed by day. They’re often seen flying from just before dusk, but they also fly into the night

Poplar Hawk-moth (May – August)

This resident moth flashes reddish-brown patches on its underwings if disturbed. It is unusual in having the hindwings protruding in front of the forewings at rest. The adult does not feed. The female comes to light before midnight, the male after midnight and in greater numbers.

Elephant Hawk-moth (May – Juyl)

A well-known moth for its beautiful pink and green colouring. The adults fly at night, visiting the flowers of honeysuckle. Caterpillars are commonly found on fuchsia.

Mint moth (Apr – Sep)

This micro moth is very small, up to just 20mm in length. It will fly in the sunshine and also at night. During the day adults are often found sitting on the leaves of Mint or Oregano plants.

White Ermine (May – Jul)

A white moth with small black spots on the forewing, however, the number of black spots varies greatly from largely white examples which are almost entirely plain to those with many more spots that may even join together to form streaks along the wing veins. Found in most rural and urban habitats.

Silver Y (May – November)

Probably the UK's most common immigrant moth. Each forewing has a conspicuous unbroken metallic silver Y-marking. Seen mostly throughout the summer in a range of habitats through to late autumn. Flies by day and also comes to light at night.

Common Carpet (May – Sep)

This very common moth is found in a range of habitats, especially gardens. Its wingspan is up to 25mm long and it has a dark cross band on each forewing. They fly from dusk but adults can be disturbed from low vegetation in the day.

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