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The hidden world of moths

Buff-tip moth (3533554)
Buff-tip moth (3533554)

Summer brings us butterflies galore – but Olly Clanford says there are other stunning winged insects around us living under the cover of darkness . . . so say hello to the moth

With their balletic flight and brilliant colours, the aesthetic appeal of butterflies is obvious. Harbingers of spring and summer, these showy insects capture our attention in our gardens, parks and green spaces. There are, however, a whole host of equally stunning winged insects all around us, living their lives under the cover of darkness: moths. The sheer variety is astounding; there are around 2,500 species in the UK alone, compared to just 58 day-flying species of butterfly.

Start dabbling in their enigmatic world and it’s hard not to be drawn in. Commonly divided into macro moths (larger species) and smaller micro moths, the names alone are endlessly fascinating: True Lover’s Knot, Burnished Brass, Chimney Sweeper, Dingy Footman, Mottled Beauty, Blood Vein, Drab Looper, Wild Cherry Sphynx, Devil’s-head Hawk-moth … the list goes on.

Equally fascinating are the numerous tricks they have evolved to avoid predation. Camouflage is a common strategy, with subtle colours and patterns which protect the insects by seamlessly blending in with their surroundings.

One of the true masters of disguise is the Buff-tip – it bears an uncanny resemblance to a twig both in colour and shape. And not just any twig; it has evolved to specifically mimic the characteristic silvery colour of a broken birch twig.

Another technique is employed by the Chinese Character moth, which looks remarkably similar to a bird dropping. An ingenious ruse to avoid ending up as lunch.

The Hornet Moth has taken camouflage to a different level – it has evolved to appear just like a hornet, complete with transparent wings. Again, this is designed to be off-putting to predators as they are fooled by the appearance of what is a completely harmless insect.

Using a moth trap is a great way to delve into the night-time world of moths and for beginners, seeing the diversity is exciting. However, this hides an alarming pattern: recent studies at a nature reserve in Germany have shown that abundance of flying insects has fallen by 75% in just 25 years.

Moths also appear to be affected by this decline. According to a report by Butterfly Conservation in 2013, the total abundance of larger moths declined by 28% in Britain from 1968 to 2007. The situation seems worse in the south, with a 40% decline in the same period, perhaps caused by species moving north due to climate change. Two-thirds of 337 species of common and widespread larger moths declined, with 37% of those species decreasing by at least 50%.

Regular counts are vital tools in helping monitor moth populations and Lackford Lakes is offering the chance for visitors to be a part of this at its ‘Amazing Moths’ sessions on Saturday 11th August and Saturday 8th September. The sessions are free to attend, so just turn up between 1-2pm to have a peek into the wonderful world of moths.

Olly Clanford,

Development Officer, Suffolk Wildlife Trust

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