Friday, 29 May 2015

What a rude moth

I don't suppose you ever expected to turn to this blog and find a moth flicking a V-sign at you. But there it is, courtesy of the very bizarre-looking Pale Prominent. Apart from its soft, grey colouring, this curious creature reminds me of a Cadbury's Flake, those chocolate bars whose yellow wrappers had to be folded into a funnel at school to make sure the little flaky bits which had crumbled off didn't end up on the desk or floor.

More relevantly, it also resembles a bit of twig and I would imagine that this gives it a particularly good record in escaping predators. Mind you, the hunting mechanisms of birds are very different from ours and I suspect that movement by prey is more important in many cases than appearance. I say this because I have sometimes carelessly left the eggboxes out with moths also lying on my kneeler pad, when I have been distracted after photographing the morning's catch, and in almost all cases they have survived the attentions of inquisitive robins and blackbirds.

It is only the male Pale Prominent which has the twin tails and, given that the tip of a moth's body is where the action takes place in breeding terms, I guess they must serve some purpose related to sexual attraction. Note, though, that the moth is nicely proportionate, with equally long palps, organs primarily designed for testing whether material is edible.

Update: this is the dark (combusta) version of the Clouded-bordered Brindle - many thanks to Dave Wilton of Upper Thames Moths

Here are some of last night's other visitors, which I have yet to identify apart from the dark-n-light couple of Heart and Darts and the Common Wainscot at the bottom. It was a busier evening than most have been recently, probably because of warmer temperatures. Update: I have taken my courage in both hands and put my best shot at IDs in the captions. Endorsement or ridicule equally welcome.

Update: I think this is a Clouded Drab

Update: I'm going for Small Square-spot

Update: I reckon this to be a Brown Rustic

Update: And this to be another Small Square-spot

Thursday, 28 May 2015


My title today is meant to be a sneeze - maybe I should have added 'Bless you!' - because this morning the year's first Peppered Moth was stylishly perched in one of the eggboxes. This is a nice coincidence because last week I had an email from Cornell University Press in the States saying that they were potentially interested in using a picture from one of the many previous mentions I've made of the Peppered Moth here.

I didn't ask the subject of the book when replying to say Yes, but I am sure the reference will be to the Peppered's hallowed place in the science of genetics, through the rise and fall of the melanic, or dark, version of the species and its relationship with the parallel rise and fall of pollution.  This was most entertainingly illustrated by the great entomologist and doctor Sir Cyril Clarke, who famously plotted a graph showing similar curves for (a) the decline of the melanic Peppered in the UK and (b) the rise in centenarians here during the same period, when much of the dreadful, unhealthy legacy of our industrial past was at last brought under control.

Scientifically, the Peppered plays a wider role as a striking and easy-to-understand example of Darwin's natural selection in action, though you will find many a furious counterblast to this from Creationists online. My pictures show, at the top, today's Peppered Moth and below, the picture of both types when they flew in together on the same night in 2013 - the one which Cornell UP may use. I hope they do.

The other feature of this moth which I've noticed over the years is how neatly it positions itself in the eggboxes which happened again this morning - the wings conforming almost exactly to the angles of the cone. This has been taken in previous years to the lengths of the moths sitting on the barcodes which have a vaguely similar black-and-white pattern to their own. The point about the correlation of melanism with pollution, I should have explained earlier, is that in sooty areas the dark moth was less likely to be predated than the standard, peppered one which conversely survives better in cleaner surroundings where the melanic moth stands out as a dark splodge.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Mystery eggs

In my last post, I foresaw another night of abundant moths. This proved correct but only in terms of numbers. There was nothing new or especially interesting among the overnight visitors on Monday. Perhaps the novelties took Bank Holiday off to enjoy themselves elsewhere.

Last night was even more unrewarding with under a dozen moths in the eggboxes and all of them familiar - a Swallow Prominent, a Flame Shoulder and several browny-grey bretheren. Mind you, we were back late and I didn't light the lamp until gone ten. The night seemed warmish then but it was quite nippy this morning - all things to discourage May moths.

I do have something to report, however, in that I had second thoughts about the gender of my Puss Moth, featured two posts back, and so confined him or her to a large box with willow leaves inside to see if I could repeat last year's highly enjoyable breeding of Emperor moths from eggs (four pupae from that family still slumber on). I don't think this latest experiment has succeeded but there are eggs on the willow - the yellow ones in the picture above.

They don't look like the browny pellets shown online for Puss Moth eggs and they are in a much larger cluster than the ones, twos or threes which the Puss Moth usually lays. But I will keep an eye on them and try to breed whatever emerges, unless it is something nasty from elsewhere in the insect world.  The mystery is that there didn't seem to be another potential egglayer in the box and I hadn't noticed the eggs when I put the willow inside.

But then, there are a lot of things I don't notice.

In the absence of moths, I thought you might also like to see a couple of our many goldfinches eating their strange diet of thistle seeds. Beautiful and very unBritish birds, in that they are brightly-coloured, they have a monopoly of one of our birdfeeders because no other visitors can get their beaks through the tiny holes.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The rest of last night's gang

I mentioned earlier today that my lovely Puss Moth was attended by a veritable army of other overnight guests, and here are some of the more interesting (and those whose identity escapes me, as is so often the case). These first two are examples of moths with metallic markings produced by light-reflecting wing scales rather than the usual pigment; the Gold Spot above and the Plain (although actually very far from plain) Golden Y below.

Next we have one of the most strangely-patterned of our native species, the Scorched Wing, whose curious colouring has influenced 'dazzle camouflage' which disorientates the eye and was used to good effect in naval ships during the First World War.

Common Swifts have been extremely common visitors to the trap in the last fortnight and fgeature in recent posts but the next moth is the first of the completely plain examples which occur from time to time, with none of the bold white markings of most of the type.

Next, the year's first Marbled Minor, followed by a Treble Lines, another debut, and two returnees, Lychnis and a Flounced Rustic Update: the last is actually a Clouded-bordered Brindle, sorry.

Update - sorry, I'm sure this is a Clouded-bordered Brindle, whose dark (combusta) variety arrived a few days later and was kindly ID-ed by Dave Wilton of Upper Thames Moths

Here's another nice newcomer, too: a Buff Ermine, perched alongside a capsized and sleepy White Ermine, its close relative.

My new camera (or it may be me) hasn't got the hang of accurate colour yet, so here's a second picture in which the buffness of the Buff is perhaps clearer:

And now more Carpets or similar frail but complex-patterned moths whose identities I need to resolve, given time and patience. I think the third one down is a Twin-spot Carpet and the fourth perhaps a Balsam, though it may just be a Common Carpet:

The last one above may well be a Common Marbled Carpet. That would be my bet. And I will just put in one which I do know, to cheer myself up even though I have already featured it this year. Unsurprisingly, this is a Green Carpet:

And now a couple of the Carpets' even smaller (and harder to identify) relatives, the Pug moths. I think that the first is a Common Pug - but Update, thanks to five-year-old Aidan in Comments, I now agree with him that this is a Dotted Pug - and the second (more shakily cos it seems too early) a Bordered Pug and the third (also shakily) a Mottled Pug. Correction and advice warmly welcome. 

And lastly, two of my lifelong enemies: dull grey moths which I never seem to be able to nail. Could the first be that sadly-named creature, the Lead-coloured Drab? Loads of moths then, and loads of work to do too. And another excellent night isunder way as I write, at least in weather terms, so I predict much more to come.

Puss, puss

Here's a moth which would perplex my granddaughter. She has cats and moths well-sorted, the former greeted with a mixture between a purr and a miaow and the latter getting her butterfly noise unless small and squat, in which case she does her bee imitation, blowing a small raspberry.

But a Puss Moth. How do you cope with that? If she was here this weekend, I would try to find out by showing her the real thing, which is still slumbering on a gatepost. As it is, I will show her these photographs when we're down in London on grandparent duty later in the week. She's used to my grubby fingernails.

What a lovely moth! Big and beautiful and with one of the finest caterpillars in the moth world. One of these days I must try to get some eggs and see if I can breed a family. But I think that today's visitor is a male.

There was an absolute crowd of other moths in the trap after the second perfect May night in a row, but  other engagements mean that they will have to wait for my next post. Except for this handsome Figure of Eighty Moth above. Names are often fanciful in the mothy world, but this one is spot-on as I think you'll agree from the detail on the left.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Carpet world

Suddenly it's busy.  Temperatures have risen and the rain has stayed away and that all means perfection for May moths. And for me, though the timing of my morning routines has become more complicated. I need to haul myself out of bed a little earlier to get both moths and morning tea done in time.

The first thing I noticed this morning was the number of different Carpet moths, which account for my first four photographs. Named because their delicate patterns reminded 18th century entomologists of the carpets arriving as something of a novelty from the Middle and Far East, these little moths are often nervy and flutter away when I lift the trap's transparent lid.

I need help with identifying the first, beautifully soft grey one - could it be an Early Tooth-striped? -  but I'm sure that the second is a Garden Carpet and I think the third is a Twin-spot Carpet. Sorry to be so hopeless but I stare at Richard Lewington's beautiful paintings in the Moth Bible until I am giddy, yet still cannot nail so many species. Ah me.

I do, however, know that the next moth, above, is that lovely little scrap, the Clouded Silver, and the one below, which privately I call the Bird Poo Moth, is a Chinese Character, a curiously-shaped insect which reminds me of the counters representing ten armies in old versions of the board game Risk.

Next in this long and diverse parade comes a dainty Small White Wave, I think - below:


and after that - below - what I believe to be a Treble-bar. Update: Silly me. This is the large micro Garden Pebble (Evergestis forficalis) which came at the same time last year.

Then here's the Fag-end Moth, properly known as the Flame, which has been known to fly into entomologists' ears during light-trap inspections or vigils at night (not a habit of mine) and after him or her, a Shears, a Waved Umber, a Knot Grass (I think) and a Bright-line, Brown-eye.

Finally in the moth section of this compendious post (ARACHNOPHOBIA WARNING - a spider is coming. AND a hornet), here are a couple of neat little micro moths which I will sort out later.

A good collection, then - and there were plenty of others already featured in previous posts, such as an iron Prominent, a Brimstone Moth, more than a dozen common Swifts and several Flame Shoulders. But on to the spider and hornet.

I was digging weeds out of the veg patch when I saw the spider, quite an ordinary-looking one but scuttling away from my trowel which had unearthed it with what initially looked like a Mint Imperial.  Googling such phrases as 'spider with white ball' establishes that this is an egg sac, probably containing at least 100 eggs. One of the entertaining things about the internet is the way it links articles to supposedly related products and because this one referred to spiders moulting and shedding their skin, the ad link was to 'the best 2015 products for tightening loose, sagging face skin.'

I am happy with my face skin and indeed my wrinkles are said to give me kindly eyes; an advantage of age. My venerable years also left me unafraid when, cutting grass a little later, I disturbed this extremely large hornet with that evil-looking head borrowed by hundreds of creators of space aliens. It is now an ex-hornet, I am afraid. Pensioners rule!