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It's time to reconsider the merits of the moth

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 03, 2011

  • Above: Elephant hawkmoth. Below left: A death's head hawkmoth. Below right: A brown-tail larva

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A small group huddle together in the gloom, their heads bowed in supplication as they stare intently into a spear of light towering from a dark object at their feet.

This is not a re-enactment of an alien invasion film – this is the world of the moth enthusiast.

The onlookers watch bewitched as scores of moths are lured in by the blinding glow of a light trap – a wooden box fitted with a mercury vapour bulb.

The trap is just one weapon in the bizarre and seemingly endless armoury of the "mother", or moth enthusiast. Other arcane devices range from ropes daubed in wine and sugar – a practice known as "wine roping" – to white blankets hung up and illuminated by lantern light – the lamp and sheet trap.

That people go to such lengths to get close to moths is something that should be celebrated, for these insects have, for centuries, been blamed for a litany of sins. They get an early and unfavourable mention in the Bible for eating precious cloth.

Then, through the medieval period, their reputation suffered another severe blow as general opinion deemed them harbingers of death or even the spirits of witches.

Things don't get much better in modern times. The humble clothes moth has been lambasted for targeting people's dirty garments.

And the diminutive brown-tail has been depicted by the tabloids as a rampaging super-caterpillar, capable of inflicting horrific bouts of itching and dramatic respiratory problems.

Like their exhibitionist relatives the butterflies, these insects are suffering from catastrophic declines in population.

Some 60 of our 2,500 moth species became extinct in the last 100 years, and due to climate change, habitat loss and shifts in agricultural practices, many more are in danger of heading the same way.

To allow this to happen is a wildlife disaster, for moths, even more so than butterflies, are bewitching and beguiling in their complexity and play a key role in pollinating plants.

First, let us deal with the so-called problem moths. True, the three species of clothes moths found in the UK will nibble on natural fibre garments given half the chance.

But as moth larvae (caterpillars) are attracted to traces of sweat and food stains, they will only tuck into your trousers if they have not been washed properly.

The brown-tail moth does shed fine hairs that can cause skin irritation, but this is simply a defence mechanism, not a deliberate show of aggression.

So, only four from 2,500 species pose any kind of problem. But negative associations still abound.

Moths' macabre reputation is in some way understandable. They appear, fluttering and wraithlike as night descends, seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction as they hurtle towards the glow of a candle.

But it is one of our super-moths, the chillingly named death's-head hawk-moth, that has been painted as responsible for this sinister stereotype.

The moth, which can even squeak, is huge – comparable in size to our smallest birds, and its dark, furry thorax is decorated with a striking skull-like marking.

Far less sinister is the hummingbird hawkmoth, which can rightly lay claim to the title of the UK's most spectacular insect. This migrant hovers more or less like a hummingbird above the flower beds, bringing an unexpected touch of tropical glamour to our summer gardens.

Salvation may be at hand for our moths in the shape of that other singular breed – the birder.

The huge number and variety of UK moths coupled with their beguiling identification problems are the kind of challenge birders adore.

And some moths are extremely difficult to identify. One of the joys of "mothing" is entering the world of the Victorian collectors responsible for naming many of our moths. There is, for instance, the geometrician, the sorcerer, the vapourer and even the setaceous Hebrew character.

Les Hill, a moth expert at wildlife organisation Butterfly Conservation, which runs the National Moth Recording Scheme, acknowledges moths still have an image problem.

"It is very frustrating to see the bad press moths receive, usually as either jumper-munching pests, or for spinning unsightly larval webs or even flying indoors around light fittings.

"This is mainly because moths generally fly at night and are perceived by the public as scary and vampire-like. Also, phrases like 'moth-eaten' are still used in everyday language as an analogy for anything that looks like it may have been nibbled on.

"Historically, people wore natural fibres only, therefore the abundance of 'clothes' moths was far greater than it is today and it was perceived that all moths ate clothes."

If we can learn to love birds of prey again after decades of persecution, then surely it's time to give our misunderstood moths a second chance.

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