Hidden beauty of our ‘nocturnal butterflies’

Now that spring is here, many of us are looking forward to seeing our first butterflies of the year.

Friday, 19th April 2019, 2:00 pm
Pine Beauty moth. Picture by Stewart Sexton.

Everyone’s favourite insect is a sure sign that long summer days are just around the corner.

But how many people think about those other forms of ‘lepidoptera’, the moths?

Red Chestnut moth. Picture by Stewart Sexton

Moths are by far the most numerous branch of the group.

For example, in Northumberland, we have around 30 species of butterfly, but over 1,400 species of moths.

They are found in all areas of the county, from the seashore to the tops of the Cheviots, as well as in houses, gardens and woodland.

Contrary to popular belief, out of those thousand-plus species only about four of them cause damage to fabric and woollens.

Red Sword-grass moth. Picture by Stewart Sexton

The majority either feed nocturnally on nectar from flowers just like their daytime flying counterparts or they don’t feed at all in adult form, all of their nourishment coming from their time spent as a caterpillar.

Moths are on the wing in all months of the year, with the Winter Moth even able to fly in sub-zero temperatures.

However, it is the spring that is the start of the moth recording season properly.

I run a Robinson-type moth trap in my garden, on several nights each week.

A moth trap. Picture by Stewart Sexton

It is basically a large black plastic tub about 50cm in diameter, with a bright 125w mercury vapour light bulb shining above it.

The ultra-violet light this bulb emits is very attractive to insects and can draw in a large number of moths when left on from dusk until dawn.

The trap is harmless to the inmates.

It is lined with flat egg trays so the moths can hide away in the recesses waiting to be counted up in the morning.

The trap is then placed in cool shade until dusk when the moths are released back into the garden to continue their lives.

The spring season has moths on the wing that are not found at other times of year.

Some, such as the Hebrew Character, Common Quaker and Clouded Drab, are found in large numbers at this time.

It was the Victorians who gave these very evocative and poetic English names to them.

Some species names, such as the Brocades, the Wainscots and the Prominents, almost give a vision of Dickensian Britain.

Other spring species, such as Early Grey, Chestnut and Early Thorn, are found regularly but in smaller numbers.

Two species, in particular, are much hoped for by moth trappers in the county at this time, the Red Sword-grass and the Pale Pinion.

The latter was unknown in Northumberland prior to 2004, but is now found annually coming to light traps, while the Red Sword-grass is equally as scarce but has always been present in the county.

If you would like to see which moths visit your garden, try to leave an outside light on overnight, or keep an eye on a window with the curtains left open to see what appears.

Better still, try to visit a demonstration of moth trapping at an organised event, one or two take place in the county in most years.

Please check out the website www.northumberland moths.org.ukIt has thousands of excellent images of the moths to be found locally and maps of their distribution.

Hopefully, you will see that some of our ‘nocturnal butterflies’ are equally as beautiful, even if a little more subtly patterned than their bright diurnal relatives.


Follow Stewart Sexton on Twitter @Stewchat or read ‘Stewchat’ at www.boulmerbirder.blogspot.com