Home > Moths > 18 September 2015 – National Moth Night Pt 3

18 September 2015

18 September 2015 – National Moth Night Pt 3

Martin Huxter with actinic light

I peered out of the back bedroom window at the glowing moth trap in the garden and it looked like a carousel with no punters at an out-of-season funfair. It was nearly one in the morning on National Moth Night and the trap had, in theory, been luring the local moth population for nearly five hours. The lamp was surprisingly powerful and the blue-white glow picked out not just the leaves on the shrubs in my garden and those of the neighbour’s cherry tree, but even the tops of the poplars out the front seemed to have a bluish tinge. ‘They’ll be flying in from far and wide tonight’, I thought and I was sure some of the early flyers were already in.

I went to bed fully expecting to dream about moths, which I did, eventually, but as I lay in the darkness trying to get to sleep I pictured the air around the trap teeming with moths, glinting like shoals of fish in the deep. I imagined I had a long, extendable arm that went through the house and out into the garden, on the end of which a luminous blue crab-like claw swished a net from side to side – trawling the air. 

I was out at eight o’clock Sunday morning to check the trap which I opened with a ridiculous amount of caution. To be fair though I didn’t want to lose a single specimen and I certainly didn’t want to crush one between the old egg boxes that provide dark resting places for daylight shunning moths. It looked devoid of life apart from two dozy wasps and a frozen crane-fly and there was nothing on the first three boxes I removed. Regarding moths people tend to fall into one of two categories: those with no interest in moths who might use words such as ‘drab’ and ‘dull’ to describe them, and those for whom moths are mysterious, poetic, shimmering and burnished. The former group is probably in the majority, and although I am firmly with the latter I would always find it hard to get excited about the first two rather sombre-looking moths that I removed from the trap. But my first glimpse of the third individual had me frantically leafing through my moth identification book. It was a beautiful, small, delta-shaped moth with a crisply defined pattern of three or four subtle shades of oxide green, pale ochre, and undulating thin white lines running across the wings, outlining and sharply delineating the main changes of tone. It was a Green Carpet (Colostygia pectinataria)

Green Carpet  (Colostygia pectinataria)

The markings were exquisite and I kept looking at it in its little glass observation phial as if it was a piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. After it had been properly documented it felt vaguely reckless to let it go, and I was annoyed when it flew over the garden fence and disappeared behind the neighbour’s shed. The next one was also lovely: a rather graceful, pale coppery moth, clearly evolved to resemble a dead leaf. This turned out to be a Dusky Thorn (Ennomos fuscantaria).

Dusky Thorn (Ennomos fuscantaria)

All in all though these were not the rich pickings I had hoped for. Only six moths: one Green Carpet ; one Dusky Thorn; one Brown-Spot Pinion (Agrochola litura); one Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba); one Lunar Underwing (Omphaloscelis lunosa); and one Copper Underwing (Amphipyra pyramidea) – although this last one has not yet been confirmed and could be a Svensson’s Copper Underwing (Amphipyra berbera). I was disappointed, and when Patrick came to record the results and dismantle the trap I felt a mild sense of shame, ridiculous I know, that my garden had proved such a poor moth habitat. He assured me that there are so many variables affecting the movements of moths that you can never predict what you will get, and that even over at Shandy Hall they trap next to nothing on some nights. I’m determined to get a better haul next time though and I may resort to positioning the trap nearer to my neighbour’s garden and hope to lure some from their side too.

Lunar Underwing (Omphaloscelis lunosa)

Despite the initial poor results I really enjoyed the experience, especially the identification of the specimens, which for a novice is extremely challenging due to the tendency of many moth species to resemble each other very closely. Add to this the fact that key identifying features can be lost through wear and tear as a moth ages, and that there is often considerable variation between individuals of the same species, then it will not be surprising that my results had to be checked not just by Patrick but by an expert entomologist as well. But positively identifying a moth, having checked and re-checked a specimen against hundreds of illustrations, until eventually you can place the moth in its jar directly over a life-size image of one of its kind, is a strangely rewarding experience. It’s one of those moments when Art, Science and Nature are all in harmony.

That afternoon I started to think about the moth themed paintings I would like to do and the experience had certainly given me plenty of ideas. Back in the garden I started to see the patterns on moths’ wings everywhere, as if so much close observation had burnt them onto my retina. They were in the mottled greens and golds of rosebush leaves; in the colours of the overripe fruit on the compost heap; in the textures of moss and lichen and even damp paving-stones. Later, sitting inside and leafing through my moth book, looking at pictures of the ones that got away, then returning to the now familiar gorgeous wings of the Green Carpet, I realised that my own carpet was very dull and very drab indeed.

Post by: Martin Huxter