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No reason to be all of a flutter
11:17am Monday 5th September 2011 in Country News latest
A SMALL group of people 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’ (as in moth, not mum).
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 historically suffered from the sort of appalling PR normally doled out to bubonic plague-carrying lice.
Through the centuries moths have been blamed for a litany of sins. They get an early and unfavourable mention in the Bible for eating precious cloth.
Then, through the mediaeval 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.
That moths should get such a bad time of it seems a trifle unfair. They do not have it easy.
Like their exhibitionist relatives the butterflies, these insects are suffering from catastrophic declines in population.
Some 60 of Britain’s 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.
True, the three species of clothes moths found in Briatin 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 hellbent on self-destruction as they hurtle towards the glow of a candle.
But it is one of our super-moths, the chillingly named Death’shead Hawk-moth, that has been painted as responsible for this sinister stereotype.
It’s huge – comparable in size to our smallest birds – it can even squeak and its dark, furry thorax is decorated with a striking skulllike marking. This no doubt helped the species secure a cameo role in the Hollywood blockbuster The Silence Of The Lambs, in which the film’s serial killer places a pupa of a variant of the moth in his victims’ mouths.
One of the joys of ‘mothing’ is entering the world of the Victorian collectors responsible for naming many of the insects.
There is, for instance, the Geometrician, the Sorcerer, the Vapourer, the Tiger 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.
He said: “It is very frustrating to see the bad press moths receive, usually as either jumpermunching 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.”
If we can learn to love birds of prey again following decades of persecution, then surely it is time to give our misunderstood moths a second chance.