The secret life of moths

Every single one of our moths is an extraordinary and unique example of adaptation, evolution and survival

David Tomlinson asks why we celebrate our butterflies, but neglect our moths?

** Read our simple guide to identifying British moths

Merveille du jour, chamomile shark, marbled coronet, muslin footman: such exquisite and intriguing names beg further investigation, so, if you’ve always thought of moths as rather a dull lot, think again. Some 900 species of macro-moths occur in the British Isles, every one an extraordinary and unique example of adaptation, evolution and survival, yet, sadly, most of us struggle to name, let alone identify, a single one.

‘A moth is a butterfly suffering from poor public relations,’ an enthusiast once remarked and, although he was joking, he’s right—we celebrate our butterflies, but neglect our moths. Physiologically, there’s very little difference between the two, apart from the butterfly’s distinctive clubbed antennae. Both have the same lifecycle of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult.

Indeed, some 96% of the 2,600 species of British Lepidoptera (the order that includes both moths and butterflies) are moths. Lepidopterists split the moths into two: the macros and the micros. It’s not a scientific division, although the tiny size of the micros goes some way to explaining why they’re relatively neglected. The much-hated clothes moth is a micro, but all the moths we’ve chosen to include in this article are macros. Among their number are insects of spectacular beauty, comparable to any butterfly.

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Much of our knowledge of moths stems from the work of 19th-century lepidopterists and collectors. Today, facts about status and distribution are produced by a network of enthusiasts, attracting moths not with a flame, but with a mercury- vapour moth trap. An exceptional catch might produce 500 moths of 70 species. But, be warned: moth trapping is seriously addictive, as there’s always the prospect of catching a new species for the garden, the county or even the country.

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