COLUMN: It’s a great time to spot moths

An elephant hawkmoth. Photo by Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com)
An elephant hawkmoth. Photo by Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com)

This week’s column comes from RSBP Frampton Marsh visitor services officer Chris Andrews.

July is a great time for moths in Lincolnshire, with the warmer nights being a good time for the adults to fly about their business.

And what do moths do? Well, mostly they drink nectar from flowers. Like butterflies they have specially adapted straw-like mouthparts, ideal for sucking up the sweet liquid.

In fact, biologically speaking there really is no difference between butterflies and moths.

With many moths, if you were to see them in the daytime, you would not notice the difference.

Something like an elephant hawkmoth, for example, with its lurid greens and pinks, can match any butterfly for prettiness. Far better than the dull brown things that their reputation suggests.

Something that surprises people is that not all moths fly at night. Some, like the cinnabar or the burnet moths, are day-fliers.

They rely on being poisonous to deter predators, and have bright colours to warn of this fact.

For example, the caterpillars of cinnabar moths can often be found eating ragwort, itself a poisonous plant. But the caterpillars are untouched by the toxins, and store them in their own bodies, to act as a defence.

They then advertise this by being black and yellow, universal warning colours. The toxins stay even when the moth has become an adult. Only then the warning colours are red and black.

Not all moths are poisonous though, and a good number of both adults and caterpillars become food for other hungry creatures.

Yes, including birds. Some birds, like the cuckoo, rely to a large extent on eating moth caterpillars. And this has been linked to their decline because recently moths haven’t been doing so well.

Causes are as yet unclear, but it could partly be due to the cold and wet springs we’ve had recently.

It could also to connected with how much insecticide is being sprayed around in gardens and the wider countryside.

Can you do anything to help? Well, yes. Go easy on the bug spray in the garden. Try organic fruit and veg. And put lots of nectar-rich plants into your garden.

Then maybe shine a lamp against a white sheet one night, and see what comes.

Moths will be attracted to the bright light, and it will give you a chance to see them. Or else come to one of our moth events at Frampton Marsh to learn more about these enigmatic and misunderstood creatures.