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10 June 2016

9 June 2016 – Two Nights in One

Diamond Back (Plutella xylostella)

I arrived in England when it was emerging from a fortnight of unprecedented cold. The sun returned with a vengeance and has been grilling the pastures outside my kitchen window for three whole days – an unusual occurrence I am told. For all its glory, the warmth was deceptive, for the nights were still too chilly for a decent yield in the moth trap. Compared to the frantic bee swarm that commandeered the roof of the cottage this morning, our moth trap, which was set up the night of Sunday 5 June, made a pretty modest entry. The species we found were pretty high up on the ‘Yorkshire Moths Flying Tonight’ list. Still, there was joy turning over an egg box and spotting a stunning pattern like that of the Pale-shouldered Brocade, which recalls for me Persian rugs and fractal art. The other ones present were: Common Swift, Buff Ermine, Rustic Shoulder Knot, Diamond Back, Lychnis, Common Pug, White Ermine, and Clouded-bordered Brindle.

Lychnis (Hedena bicruris)

Sitting down with the close-up photographs I had taken and my field guides, I had a sudden flashback to my Art History exam where I was asked to identify a work of art from a nitty-gritty detail chosen from a reservoir of some three hundred. One learns to recognize a Picasso when he or she sees one; I guess the same goes for moths. By the time I had finished my first nine identifications (with help)I felt ready to dive into this new field encompassing not only biology but also art and etymology. 

I was thrilled, for instance, to find that the Plutellapart of the name Plutella xylostella (Diamond Back) has a number of derivations. It can be rooted in ‘ploutos’, meaning ‘wealth’, or ‘plutos’, meaning ‘washed’, the latter of which would be consistent with the smudged markings on the insect’s wings. However taking the mythical path, the word could derive from Pluto, the Roman god of the Underworld. It appears that the German naturalist Schrank (1747 – 1835), a name-giver for moths and butterflies, had a penchant for names of Greek gods or mythical creatures – especially the grimmer ones (e.g. Hadena, Maniola) – a coincidence that we got both Pluto and Hades in the trap?

Meanwhile, in this earthly realm we are hoping for the cold to recede for National Moth Night running Thursday 9 June through Saturday 11 June.

Apple Fruit Moth (Argyresthia conjugella)

A second trap set in the quarry on the night of 7 June redeemed the first, with higher yields in number as well as species. When I arrived the rim and the lid of the trap were littered with what must have been hundreds of Diamond Backs (Plutella xylostella) – apparently so many have not been seen before at Shandy Hall and might have been due to an increase in one food plant in the wild garden. 

We discovered a precious little Apple Fruit Moth (Argyrestina conjugella) that blended into the swarm of Diamond Backs. A scarce and local resident, this species has only been recorded 13 times in Yorkshire and was recorded at Shandy Hall for the first time in June 2014. The metallic sheen on the forewings earns it the first part of its name, in which ‘arguros’ means silver and ‘esthes’, a dress. 

I watched Patrick fish out one egg box after another like a magician to reveal the striking contours of a Poplar Hawk Moth, a Pale Tussock, a Clouded-silver, a Little Emerald, along with a wide assortment of Geometridae and Noctuidae. The Pale Prominent (Pterostoma papina) caught my eyes. With three ridges on its back, its sculpted scallop-shaped forewing, and its feathery labial palps, which gives it the name of its genus Pterostoma (‘feathery mouth’). The first generation of this moth flies May-June and has been greeting the previous interns at around this time of the year without fail. I am glad to finally join the squad.

Pale Prominent (Pterostoma palpina)

I had a generous welcome from a Mottled Pug (Eupithecia exiguata), which hugged my sleeve and posed conveniently against the pink material. Much of its dorsum had flaked off and the markings had faded considerably, but the interlace of dark and light vein marks were still visible. The name Eupithecia comes from ‘eu’, meaning good and ‘pithēx’, meaning dwarf – allegedly a compliment to the moth’s elegant resting position with wings fully spread. This pug feeds on hawthorn (Crataegus), which is enjoying an exceptionally jolly and long blossom season in Yorkshire.

Mottled Pug (Eupithecia exiguata)

And a bonus – we finally have a picture of the May Highflyer (Hydriomena impluviata) on our own patch! The moth showed itself for the first time last year and it is not common. It is distinguished by a light-colored band going across the wings with two staple marks, and three parallel dark streaks near the fore-wing tips running along the veins. 

May Highflyer (Hydriomena impluviata)

Post : Tung Chau (University of Pennsylvania intern)