I bought a new field guide earlier this year for identifying insects. From my birder’s point of view, used as I am to narrowing down an ID to (hopefully) exact species level, there’s a distinct problem with insects: there are thousands of them! One guide could not hope to give you more than just the equivalent of dipping your toes into the water. If you want to really swim, striking out boldly into the entomological sea, I think the first step is to pick a family, and find out lots more about it. Take moths, for example. Roughly one page in five of the book is devoted to them, covering almost 400 species. Pugs, carpets, hawks, eggars and noctuids. Thorns, burnets and bagworms – all there. But according to the excellent UK Moths website, about 800 species regularly occur here, and those 400 include a few exotic species found rarely, if ever, in Britain. Chances are, if I find something unusual flickering round the lamps in our kitchen, it might not be in the book, although the species presented are cleverly biased towards the ones most commonly found in everyday human habitats. And just the macro moths! If you extend into the world of ‘microlepidoptera’, you’re looking at around 2400 species recorded in Britain.
You might associate moths mostly with the irritating, flappy, scaly creatures which buzz around your bedroom light on summer evenings, and when destroyed, disappear in a grey smudge of moth dust. I confess I used to be one of those ill-informed mottephobes who would chase them around my bedroom wielding a weighty, little-read theological tome, with each swing consigning another hapless victim to moth paradise. But I grew up (though I still have a tendency to be alarmed when they fly at me suddenly!), and I’ve started to notice how quietly beautiful moths can be. In fact, sometimes extravagantly so. Useful food for bats too. Here are a few examples; some I’ve seen, some I’ve yet to see. Pictured is the Jersey tiger; I took this in France but you can find them on the south coast, in Devon especially, and in recent years they’ve established something of a population in London. There’s the pink and green Elephant Hawkmoth; the lovely underwings, which surprise with flashes of yellow or orange as they fly; the burnished brass, which gets better the more you look at one and see that metallic patch blaze; or Neomopohra degeerella, whose antenna are over twice the length of its body and wings.
The names are pretty inventive too; I suspect most moth taxonomists have either a sense of humour or something of a drinking problem. Or it’s just that sheer diversity forces innovation. The drinker, the lappet, knot grass, old lady, Mother Shipton, the Clifton nonpareil. I could go on. The noctuid Cucullia umbratica is dubbed ‘Shark’ (it has a kind of fin structure behind its head), which is fairly mundane by moth standards but serves to remind me that, to paraphrase a well-known film, ‘I’m going to need a bigger book’. At which point I’d have a better chance at a final ID on the still mysterious, triangular little fellow I photographed in a beech wood in April. And a lot more as yet unnamed species to play with: this summer we found a couple of the small purple and gold moth Pyrausta purpuralis in a friend’s Reading garden. Common enough, but no common name; we thought ‘Purple Pirate’ would be good – purple-robed with several gold pieces. Naming moths would make a good rainy day activity, so I look forward to having a good few hundred pages’ worth of extra species to work through.
At some stage I think a moth trap would be useful too. I’ve had a few nice things fly into the house recently: a waved umber in the spring, something with quite a lot of blue on I never did quite identify, and this week what I think is a feathered thorn – a sizable, bumbling yet quite majestic yellow-brown triangle of a moth who kept me company in the kitchen for two evenings as I cooked. But if I want to find more, I need to draw them cunningly towards a light and into my clutches, in the hand and ready for identification. Despite the temptation to be inventive with some old egg boxes, a light-bulb and a length of wire, I expect I’ll be best off with a more professional set-up, so when a job and income finally comes my way perhaps that might be another hobby to look forward to on summer and autumn nights.
So moths are yet another example of the diversity of the natural world, which as I’ve said on many occasions, almost to exhaustion, there could be no getting bored of. Sure, sometimes it takes an investment of time and effort – and very occasionally an investment of cash as well – to really get into something new. But I’ll continue to pursue moths and I think I’ll get a good return. In fact, I fully expect the rewards to be ‘lepidopteriffic’!