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Butterflies and Moths: Getting Started with Moths


So, you've probably been to a mothing session and seen all those interesting, and quite pretty, moths or you've seen Bill Oddie running around with a net on the telly and you are hooked. You may have brought a light trap or just seen moths on your window or feeding on your buddleia but, there's no one around to tell you what they are - help!!!

For anyone getting interested in moths for the first time it can be very confusing! With over 2400 species where does one start? I have to say that one doesn't start in mid-summer when most species and numbers occur. And, unlike birds and plants, the same species of moth can exist in a number of, sometimes many, different coloured forms, adding to the confusion. What can you do?

Just joining a moth group is half the battle. There is no substitute for going out with others. Also, visiting your local museum and looking through their collections will help. A very useful article can be found on Jon Clifton's Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies site.

As with all hobbies it is possible to get bogged down in a spiral of expense but that need not be the case. As a minimum you will need a good field guide, a net and some clear plastic tubes or boxes. You may also want to buy or construct a light trap. As you progress you will find that you are catching moths not in your field guide or which you can't identify. Then, a digital camera will enable you to send photos to others - possibly via our E-group - for identification or confirmation.

There is plenty of information on mothing out there on the web and the number of books on the subject is increasing. The notes on the related pages will guide you in the right direction and hopefully start you on the road to a lifetime's enjoyment of moths.

Is it a moth?

LepidopteraScales.jpg

Firstly, how do you know that you have a moth at all - there are a few insects that could be confused with them! Moths, like butterflies, are members of the Lepidoptera, the majority of which are characterised by the possession of a coiled proboscis and a body covered in minute plate-like scales.

Many moths are day-flying and could be confused with butterflies. Butterflies have a clubbed antennae and moths have a variety of different-shaped antennae but only the Burnets have one resembling a club.

a caddisfly

The nearest insect group with which they could be confused are the Caddisflies. However, their bodies are covered in hairs and their antennae are always held out in front of them in a characteristic manner as in the photo on the left.

Historically the moths have been split, rather crudely, into two groups - the microlepidoptera (micros) and the macrolepidoptera (macros) - the latter also being known as the Larger Moths. Of the two groups the micros are by far the most numerous with many species being only a few millimetres in size. In contrast the macros are generally much larger and comprise those insects that people generally associate with the term "moth". Micros, because of their small size, lack of available illustrations and general difficulty in identification, have never been as popular with naturalists as have the macros. As to whether a moth belongs to one or the other group is an interesting question, for some micros are larger than some macros and vice versa. Suffice it to say that the macrolepidoptera or larger moths comprise all those species covered and illustrated by both Waring and Skinner.

Searching

Cinnabar.jpg

Although the majority of larger moths are nocturnal, there are a number of day-flying species and it is with these that most people will be familiar. They include, for example, the blue-and-red burnets and Cinnabar moth (left), the black Chimney-sweeper, and the yellow-and-black Speckled Yellow, as well as familiar migrants such as the Hummingbird Hawk-moth and the Silver Y. They may be looked for in the same places that you would expect to find butterflies e.g. flower-rich meadows, waste ground, embankments etc.

The majority of species rest during the day and, to avoid being detected, have become masters of disguise. Some will rest up amongst foliage, leaf litter, grasses etc. from where they may be disturbed when walking past or they may be actively dislodged by tapping the branches of a tree or bush. Many will rest on tree trunks, fence posts, boulders etc. and, as you would expect, can be very difficult to detect. However it is worth persisting because one soon "gets one's eye in".

Goldspot.jpg

Moths, like butterflies, are attracted to flowers. It is therefore worth checking the plants that the butterflies were feeding on during the day; but at night. You may well be surprised at the numbers of individuals and species on your Buddleia, for example. In the spring, sallow catkins are well worth looking at too.

Many moths have familiar caterpillars but many more have rather nondescript larvae or, in some cases, the larvae have never been found in the wild at all. The publication of Porter's book; Caterpillars of the British Isles, means that we now have a ready source of reference for identification. Nevertheless, many caterpillars can only be safely identified by rearing them through to the adult - and there is plenty of literature on this subject; for example Dickson's Lepidopterist's Handbook.

The larvae of a number of the smaller moths feed between the upper and lower surfaces of a leaf, excavating distinctive trails or mines. The shape of these mines, coupled with the plant on which they are on, can be used to identify the species that made them. In many case the mined leaves can be kept and the adult moths reared. It is a rather specialised field but is often the only way to get records for the species concerned. There is a website dedicated to their study.

Attracting

Buffarches.jpg

Even employing all the methods discussed under "searching", only a fraction of the moths of an area will be found. We need to make the moths come to us and there are several ways we can do this.

Sugaring

Moth hunters have traditionally used a method called "sugaring" to attract moths. This is very simple and can be employed to good effect in the garden. It involves preparing a sweet-tasting concoction, painting this on tree trunks, fence posts etc. and visiting these patches at intervals throughout the night. Every moth hunter has his or her own recipe for the mixture e.g. black treacle and molasses, but I have found that golden syrup with added sugar and a touch of alcohol (!) works quite well. The moths become almost drunk on the mixture and can then be approached quite closely as you can see with the Buff Arches opposite.

Wine Ropes

A method that is increasingly being used involves soaking lengths of cord in cheap red wine to which sugar is added and draping these wine ropes over vegetation. They are really another type of "sugaring".

pheromone lure in use

Pheromones

The females of a number of species of moth emit a chemical scent or pheromone to attract males. In days gone by one of the methods of finding moths like the Emperor was to place a reared female in a muslin cage on the heather and wait for the males to be attracted. So powerful is this attraction they would come to an empty cage that recently contained a female.

It is now possible to purchase artificially produce pheromones for a number of species and these are being very successfully used in the county to attract Clearwing moths - traditionally a very difficult family to study. Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies are a good source of these and an article on their use appears in our 2005 newsletter.

Light Traps

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It is a well-known fact that moths are attracted to light - be it a small flame or a bright bulb - and we can employ this attraction to great effect. Almost any source of light will do but there are two considerations.

Firstly, the ultra-violet (UV) content of the light source is important as moths are particularly sensitive to this region of the spectrum. Secondly, the attraction to the light is stronger if it is the sole source of illumination i.e. there is a good contrast between the light source and its background. For example, a solitary white street lamp (the orange ones are no good) in a dark country lane will be more attractive than one in a well-lit urban area.

However, it is worth noting that not all species are equally attracted to light and, with some, there is even a difference in attraction between the sexes too. It is important to realise, therefore, that a moth trap will not necessarily give a complete list of the species inhabiting a given area so one needs to employ a range of survey techniques. That said, let us briefly consider some of the ways in which we can use light to attract moths.

The simplest source of light is an illuminated window. Moths will often sit on the window or on the adjacent wall. Alternatively, if you have a security light that stays on then it is worth checking the surrounding area at night and first thing in the morning. Campsite toilet blocks with their outside lights and white-washed walls are renowned for attracting moths!

Before the advent of modern moth traps, the traditional way of attracting moths, especially in the field, was to use a spirit lamp such as a Tilley Lamp. Today, a butane gas lamp would do just as well. This is still a good method and to make it more effective, the lamp can be suspended in front of a vertical white sheet. The moths will then rest on the sheet where they can be examined.

By far the most effective method is to use a moth trap. The basic principal is to mount a light source within a funnel situated on top of a closed box lined with egg cartons. The moths are attracted to the light and fall through the funnel into the box. Here they hide amongst the egg cartons quite happily until the morning when the catch is examined and the moths released - well away from any waiting birds!

Skinner Trap

The best light source is a mercury vapour (MV) lamp - as used in the white street lights mentioned earlier. The problem with these is that they require a 240 volt supply and the bulbs become very hot and need to be protected from the rain. However, these lamps can, in some circumstances, attract vast numbers of moths in a night. They also emit UV so it is important to take sensible precautions, and not to look at the bulb directly. The Skinner trap, illustrated left, is a common moth trap of this type. It can be used in the field but requires a portable generator or access to a mains supply.

Heath Trap

An alternative is to use the blue fluorescent lamps that are incorporated into the insect killers that you see in butcher's shops and bakeries. It's not the bulb that kills the insects but a wire grill in front of it. These tubes, known as Actinic tubes, emit quite a lot of UV but they are not as bright as the MV lamps. The advantage of them is that they will run off a normal 12 volt car or motorbike battery as well as off the mains. This means that they are portable! They also will not disturb the neighbours! On any one night they will not attract the numbers of moths that a MV lamp would but, over a period, they will eventually attract the same species. Such a trap - known as a Heath trap - is illustrated right.

Note, however, that not all the moths attracted to the light will end up in the trap. It is common for moths to dive for the shadows or to land on the ground around the trap rather than fly straight to the bulb. To overcome this, the trap can be placed on a white sheet and the moths examined as they land. From personal experience I have also found that the Skinner-type trap attracts fewer geometer or "carpet-type" moths than the Heath trap.

Be warned; moth trapping can become addictive! There is always a sense of excitement when emptying the trap for you never know what is going to be inside. Most of the time the moths are fairly predictable but now and again there is always a surprise, especially when trapping in a new area. Moth trapping provides hours of harmless fun while at the same time providing valuable data.

When to Look

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Moths can be found in any month of the year. The graph of the number of species per month in Staffordshire shows that the peak is from June to August. For someone taking an interest for the first time, the sight of a trap full of moths in, say, July can be quite daunting. It is better to start off in the spring or late autumn when numbers are more manageable.

Not all nights are equally good for moths. For example, a warm sunny day with a cloudless sky might be good for butterflies and day-flying moths but it is generally followed by a cold evening when few moths will fly.

The best nights tend to be cloudy, mild, and preferably muggy. Unfortunately we tend to get too few of these!

Moths do not fly throughout the night but have definite periods and peaks of activity. Some species fly only at dusk for instance, when there is usually quite a lot of activity. Peak numbers probably occur shortly after dusk and then tail off until renewed activity starts at dawn.

Where to Look

Grey Mountain Carpet

Grey Mountain Carpet

Foxglove Pug

Foxglove Pug

Clouded Magpie

Clouded Magpie

Barred Red

Barred Red

Moths can be found in every corner of the county but, if you look at the distribution maps, you will see that some species are found throughout the county whereas others occur in only one or two squares. Why a certain species occurs where it does can be an intriguing question. The answer is partly tied up with the availability and distribution of its foodplant, but that is not the entire answer.

Take the Grey Mountain Carpet for example. It feeds on heather; a not uncommon plant in the county. However, the heather must be growing above 300m so that restricts the available habitat to the heather moorland in the far north. We are, in fact, at the southern limit of its range. In contrast, the Foxglove Pug feeds only on foxglove and, as that is a widespread plant, so too is the moth.

Being restricted to a single foodplant can have its disadvantages. The Clouded Magpie and the Dusky-lemon Sallow both feed on elms - a tree that was not uncommon in the past. However, since the Dutch elm disease wiped out most of our elms, the moths have become much scarcer and, in the extreme, could disappear altogether.

Some distributions are harder to explain. Why, for example, does the Scorched Carpet, which feeds on spindle, occur at sites where spindle has not been found? The Juniper Pug feeds, not surprisingly, on juniper. However, Staffordshire Flora shows that wild juniper does not occur in the county, yet the moth is quite widespread. The answer, of course, is that the species has taken to feeding on garden cultivars and it is we who have aided its spread through the county. The same can be said of the Juniper Carpet, Freyer's Pug and Blair's Shoulder-knot.

Many species are found all over the county and these are usually non-specialist moths, feeding on a wide variety of common plants or "weeds". Others, like the Grey Mountain Carpet mentioned earlier, feed on common plants but only in certain habitats. The Bulrush Wainscot feeds in the stems of reed mace and, as this plant is found in marshy areas and reed beds, so too is the moth. Likewise, the Barred Red, Pine Carpet and Spruce Carpet feed on conifers and so are usually found in and around pine woods.

This restriction to habitat and foodplant can be of use when you are puzzling over the identification of a new or rare species of moth. If you are not sure of your identification, ask yourself if the habitat and foodplant availability are right for the species in question before claiming it.

Identifying

Let's be honest, you are going to be confused when you first start. Even if you start in the early spring when the number of species is low, it may take you several hours to go through 50/60 moths. However, you soon get to know the commoner ones. You will need to buy at least Paul Waring's book and probably Bernard Skinner's too. Be warned though; these only cover the macros and some micros are as large, if not larger than some macros! Luckily there is now a field guide by Sterling covering a large proportion of those too.

OK, you've got the books and everything in the trap is not in your book and so must be new to science! We've all been there so don't get downhearted. Even if you only identify one or two; that's one or two less to identify the next night. Soon you will have recognised all the common species flying at the time and you will be able to concentrate on the new ones.

This isn't the place to go into details about identification but here are a few pointers:

  • Read through the field guide regularly. That way you will become familiar with the shapes, markings and patterns. Half the battle with identification is knowing where to start looking. After a while you will know to which family or genus a moth belongs.
  • Read the text that goes with the illustration. This often gives advice about separating similar species.
  • Don't make the illustration fit the moth - if you are unsure then let it go or take a photo.
  • Be aware that books can only illustrate a few examples of each species. Some species are incredibly variable.
  • Worn moths are best ignored, at least when you are starting.
  • Some species cannot be separated without examining their genitalia. Such species are best recorded as agg. e.g. Grey and Dark Dagger; Common and Lesser Common Rustic; some of the melanistic Minors.

Having identified your catch what next? How do you know you've got the identifications right? Any moth-er will tell you that you can get it horribly wrong when you first start - even when you've been at it for time too!

  • Have a look at the current distribution maps on this website. These will tell you if the species is likely to be in our area and whether it is rare, scarce etc.
  • If you have a new or scarce species then you may want to check your identification before submitting your records. Pay attention particularly to the habitat, flight time, similarity to commoner species etc. If possible take a photo for verification.
  • The UK Moths website has superb photographs of most of the macros and many of the micros and is excellent for checking species you are unsure of.
  • The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery has a large collection of moths which you can visit by appointment. Contact Don Steward in the Natural History section.
  • You can also join our E-group where you can post photos or queries for other members to look at.

Don't worry if you struggle at first - we all did - just enjoy it. It's not worth doing it otherwise.

Who to tell

So, you've identified all your moths and have accumulated a lot of records. What do you do now. Well, you don't have to do anything. You could keep all the data to yourself. However, data on insects is in short supply and any records, even those from your garden, are valuable. We amateurs are in a unique position to contribute to our knowledge of the natural world and it is vital that we all add to this knowledge by pooling our records. The maps that you have seen on this web site and in the Moth Atlas have all come from folks like ourselves.

The County Moth Recorder coordinates all the records of moths in the county, so all records should be sent to him in the first place. He will look through them and may get back to you with queries on some of the rare species and may ask you if you are sure of the ID. Don't be alarmed by this; it applies to everyone - even seasoned moth-hunters. It is vital that only correct identifications are stored on the database. Future workers have to be able to rely on the accuracy of past records.

Having accepted your records he will enter them on the county database and also forward a copy to the Staffordshire Ecological Record who are the central county database for all species.

Remember, your records are valuable - please send them in.


Printing of this publication for educational purposes is permitted, provided that copies are not made or distributed for commercial gain, and the title of the publication and its date appear. To copy otherwise, or to republish, requires specific permission from the Author or Staffordshire Ecological Record.

Created by SER © 2017 The Wolseley Centre, Wolseley Bridge, Stafford. ST17 0WT Last updated 27/04/2015
Operated by: Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, Staffordshire County Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council