Magical, mythical moths

Besides a very unique wee species that I became quite familiar with on Flanders Moss NNR, and the occasional characteristic day-flying species (we get plenty of moths that aren’t nocturnal!), moths weren’t something that was particularly on my radar. But over the past few weeks we have been running regular moth traps, and I have to say I’m now a definite convert!

Sorting through occupied and empty egg cartons

Moth traps are a simple setup that allow us to observe them closely, without causing them any harm. You need some kind of large bucket, tub or box. Into this bucket you should add lots of places that moths can hunker down into come daylight – we use old egg cartons. Finally, you need a bright light. Set it out overnight with the light on to attract moths for miles around, and come daytime they will all drop down into the box for shelter – to peruse at your leisure. Once recorded, all moths are released back into the wild. Here are just some of the many species that have been recorded so far:

Since they are quite a misunderstood and often underappreciated group of animals, I thought I’d dip into the symbolism behind moths to see if there was any context for this attitude (besides the fact that a small number get into our clothes and furniture). There were some fairly unsurprising, if still interesting, results. In Celtic symbolism they, rather unfairly in my opinion, represent death and decay. While I can understand this with specific species – for example the entry of a Death’s-head Hawk-moth into your home was taken as a sign that death is imminent – I can’t help but feel that moths get a bit of a raw deal. Particularly compared to butterflies, and especially when you realise there are just as many beautiful day-flying moths too! There is an idea in folklore that butterflies belong to the fairies and moths to the witches, but anyone who’s dabbled in these things knows that fairies are simply not to be trusted, so why we embrace butterflies so willingly is beyond me! A kinder interpretation I found is that moths are the souls of the deceased, and should they come flying round a light, it means your loved ones are watching over you. A rather lovely thought.

Death’s-head Hawk-moth (Butterfly Conservation)

From tales to truths. Moths belong to the same group of insects as butterflies, called Lepidoptera. This name derives from the ancient greek ‘lepis’, meaning scales, as their wings are actually made up of tiny flattened hairs that resemble scales in shape! There are a whoppping 180,000 (ish) species of butterflies and moths worldwide. Here in the UK we have over 2500 moths if you total up all the macro and micro species together (micros are often notoriously difficult to ID, so we stick to the macros – the bigger ones), whereas in comparison we only have a piddly 59 butterflies! Sadly, like so many others, as a group moths are on the decline – we have lost 3 species in the last 20 years, and two thirds of our macro moths have seen a major decrease in number in the past 40 years. This is likely due to a combination of habitat loss, light pollution and pesticides, with climate change probably influencing things too.

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the fact that moths deserve our care and protection like the rest of our wildlife, they play such a vital role in nature too. They act as nocturnal pollinators and are a key food source for amphibians, small mammals, bats and birds – particularly for young chicks – so losing them could have disastorous knock-on effects to entire ecosystems. Different moth species are also very sensitive to environmental changes, so much so that they are often used as key indicators and model organism for determining environmental and ecosystem health. If the moths are happy, then chances are most other things are happy too. This is why it is so important to record our magical moths, and safeguard their populations for the future.

You can learn lots more about moths and the different moth species in the UK here.

About Bethia Pearson

I am a practical conservation placement based at Loch Leven NNR. I am a keen naturalist with a passion for encouraging responsible outdoor access and increasing inclusivity and diversity across the sector.
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1 Response to Magical, mythical moths

  1. Amy Law says:

    Fabulous post! Lots of great information that I didn’t know before. And I love the idea that moths are the souls of our loved ones coming back to watch over us. A lovely thought indeed.

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