Uncertain, or just Confused? The joy of moth trapping

Elephant hawk moth

I started moth trapping for the first time this spring, and consequently am writing this with all the fervour of a new convert. For anyone unfamiliar with moth trapping, it involves simultaneously annoying your neighbours, your partner and your friends! Let me explain…

Poplar hawk moth on eggbox.  Photo: C BellThere are various designs of moth trap, but each have some features in common – a bright light, either mains or battery powered, to attract the moths. Some sort of chamber or container below the light, into which the moths find their way through smallish holes. And torn-up egg boxes inside this chamber, onto which the moths settle for the night.

To use it, pick a cloudy, still, warm evening. Set up your trap in the garden, and switch on the light (this is the bit which will annoy your neighbours!). Go to bed!

Set your alarm for a reasonably early hour, as you’ll need to get to the trap soon after it gets light (this is the bit which will annoy your partner, especially if it is weekend!). Unplug the light, and move the trap out of the sun. Bung the holes up with newspaper to stop any moths escaping.

Ghost moth.  Photo: C BellGo and make a cuppa and some toast – this is eminently civilised natural history - and grab your ID guide. I’m using ‘Field Guide to the moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Waring, Townsend and Lewington, although it’s good to use a few different ones to compare illustrations and information. You’re now ready to start ID’ing!

I find it incredibly exciting to open the top of the trap and lift out the first egg box. What’s going to be on it? There are over 1000 species of macro moths (i.e. what you or I would recognise as a ‘largish moth’ – there are an equal number of micro moths, but we won’t go into those just yet!), so at the moment I’m still constantly finding species I’ve not seen before. Every moth-trap morning brings something new and beautiful – what better start to the day?

Garden tiger moth.  Photo: C BellWhat’s interesting about moth ID is that there’s no shortcut (apart from experience). There’s no handy key. It’s ‘simply’ a matter of comparing the moth in front of you (pop it into a pot if it’s being a bit flighty) with the pictures in the book. Once you’ve seen a few, you start being able to classify them into their different families, based on the shape of their wings and how they hold them. So that narrows it down a bit. And, depending on what month it is, you are more likely to see certain species – most moths only fly for a few months of the year. The more abundant species will also soon become familiar. Rich has recently developed a way of visualising the data from the moth trap here at Preston Montford – this gives you an idea of which will be the commonest moths flying in any particular week. You can examine flight seasons by viewing the number of records for particular species across the year. This is an idea we’re hoping to develop into some sort of ‘likelihood’ app for moths – enter the species, your location and the date and it will give you instant feedback on whether that identification is likely or not.

One of the best ways for a beginner to get help is to use social media – either posting on relevant Facebook groups, or on Twitter using the hashtag #TeamMoth. This is where you'll annoy your non-moth loving friends, as their Twitter and Facebook feeds start to fill up with your moth photos…

Flame shoulder. Photo: C BellThere are frustrating moments too. Some species can look incredibly similar, and wing patterns can fade over time (moth wing patterns are actually made up of coloured scales, which brush off over the lifespan of the moth). One of my particular bugbears at the moment is separating Uncertains from Rustics. Some species can only be separated by dissection – click on the following links for details on two training courses facilitated and subsidised by Tomorrow's Biodiversity in November 2015 and April 2016.

An important part of any biological monitoring activity is submitting records.  I'm submitting my moth records via iRecord - and once I've got a six months' worth I'll send a batch to the county moth recorder.

What got me into moths? Enthusiastic colleagues at the FSC played a big role – including lending me the trap and the ID guides (thanks Robin!). There is also the aesthetic appeal - moths are beautiful and have the enigmatic appeal of all night-active creatures. I also wanted to expand my own natural history knowledge, and contribute more to biological recording. There’s also the luxury of being able to moth in the comfort of the garden, with a cup of tea in hand! But I have to admit that one of the main things which spurred my interest in moths are their incredible common names.

Common Wave.  Photo: C BellI’m not sure when, or by whom, most of the moths were given their common names. I suspect some common names are extremely old – some certainly smack of folklore or legend. Firstly, there are some amazing alliterations (see what I did there!). Even just sticking to the Ps, there are some crackers: Pebble Prominent, Pimpinel Pug, Pine Processionary, Pale Pinion.

There are also those moths who wouldn’t be out of place as characters in a fairytale. I’ll bet you could put together a fable involving the Handmaid, the Forester, the Miller, the Footman, the Herald, the Lackey, the Emperor and the Traveller.

Herald moth.  Photo: C BellThen there are the ‘pub names’. If anyone fancies joining me for a pint at the Heart and Dart, let me know – they do some lovely real ales. Of course we could always pop into the Figure of Eighty afterwards – but make sure you don’t end up at, confusingly, the Figure of Eight!

Some of the names defy classification – they are, quite simply, just lovely. Here are some of my favourites: Bright-line Brown-eye; Flame Shoulder; Willow Beauty; Shoulder-striped Wainscot ; Cloud-bordered Brindle; Scorched Carpet; Sombre Brocade; Alder Kitten; Blossom Underwing; Coxcomb Prominent; Garden Tiger; Oak Lutestring; Tamarisk Peacock; Wild Cherry Sphinx.

I’m sure any biological recorder would empathise with the aptly named Suspected, Anomalous, Uncertain and, brilliantly, simply Confused. And can I detect some religious overtones, both Nonconformist, Conformist and Quaker?

Buff Tip.  Photo: C BellA couple of others to end on. For Monty Python fans, the Ni Moth (habitat: shrubberies?). And after all those poetic, beautiful names, the poor old Grey must win the prize for most unimaginative moth name ever.

But aside from the names, what do they look like? The short answer is hugely variable, and endlessly beautiful. Even in my short moth-trapping career, I’ve had my breath taken away by the sheer loveliness of some moths, the amazing camouflage of others (see Buff Tip, left!), and the huge size of the hawk moths. With all this beauty and poetry just waiting to be discovered, I hope you’ll agree that annoying your neighbours, partners and friends is a price worth paying!

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