Outdoors: More interesting than its cousin the butterfly, the humble moth is worth bringing to light

KNOWN to most of us as an illuminated pale-winged fluttering against the house window at night, moths are among our most intriguing and diverse groups of insects, vastly outnumbering butterflies in terms of the number of species found in Scotland and often rivalling their day-time-flying cousins in colour and beauty.

oths come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and colours, and occur from the shoreline to our mountain-tops. They can be found all year round, even in winter, and are quite simply one of the most diverse animal groups on the planet.

The sheer multitude of species often makes them hard to identify, but according Dr Tom Prescott, species conservation officer for Butterfly Conservation Scotland, this is all part of their attraction and is an underlying reason for the huge surge in public interest in moths in recent years.

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“Moths can be tricky to identify, but there is now a good number of books or web-based resources that makes things a lot easier, and there are moth enthusiasts in virtually every part in Scotland who are always willing to help out those new to moths,” he says.

There are between 1,200 and 1,300 species of moth in Scotland, compared with only 33 types of butterfly, which are conveniently split into two groups – the macro moths and the micro moths. Although most are night flying, they are not exclusively so, and there are many species of moth that are active by day. In fact, there are more day-flying species of moth in Scotland than there are butterflies.

One only has to think of the striking red and black of the six-spot burnet moth, or the oranges and browns of the garden tiger moth to appreciate the colour of some of these day-time species. Tom Prescott’s favourite is the elephant hawk-moth, which is so pink that he likes to dub it the “Barbie” moth. Other intriguing types include the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth that looks so uncannily similar to a bumblebee that it even has see-through wings.

But, of course, the majority of our moth species are nocturnal and it is this that adds to their mystery and allure. From a distance many of these may look pale and rather bland, but look more closely and in most instances an incredible range of cryptic markings will be revealed. The vast number of different types of moth makes it difficult to pick out the stars, but I was once lucky enough to find a large emerald moth and its beautiful pale green colouration and exquisite shape is still engrained upon my mind.

Moths play an incredibly significant role in our natural environment, with both caterpillars and adults being important sources of food for many creatures. Bats in particular are reliant upon moths, as are birds such as nightjars. Blue and great tits will even time the hatching of their eggs to coincide with peak abundance of moth caterpillars to feed to their hatchlings. Moths are also important pollinators and will actively forage amongst flowers both during the day and night, depending on the species.

“We all enjoy going out into the garden on a sunny day and watching red admiral and peacock butterflies feeding on buddleia and other flowers, but go out with a torch at night and you will find that there will be moths doing exactly the same thing,” states Prescott.

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The secretive lives of moths combined with the huge number of species makes it hard to assess population trends, but there have certainly been many declines and even extinctions in England, most likely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Moths are also susceptible to environmental pollution. The situation in Scotland is more difficult to ascertain, and while there is no room for complacency, it would seem that most of our populations are relatively stable while several species are moving north into Scotland, probably due to climate change.

But what we do know for sure is that moths have the capability to charm and enthral. Prescott says: “The excitement of moths is that they can be found from the coast to the tops of our highest hills, with different species in different habitats. While many species are common and widespread, others can be very localised and rare. Even a small garden can support 50 to 100 different types. The best way to attract them is running a light-trap overnight and inspecting the contents the following morning, before releasing them unharmed.”