There are lots of things I like about observing and recording nature in general – being outdoors, the way it makes me look differently at the world and the sense of focus that I find myself in … what would be called mindfulness nowadays and for which you’d pay £30 an hour in a class of some sort if you couldn’t just ‘be’ in the wild. But I think what’s best of all is the way that what you find is a matter of random luck as much as it is habitat, season and geography. Of course, it’s possible to target moths, not least by going portable with a generator, but because the trap is static it’s largely a matter of what flies over. Moreover, with more than 2500 moths, it’s likely that you will always find new ones.

So it was this morning. I’ve been mothing regularly for four and half years now – hardly an expert, but with species list of 456 moths – and yet I’m regularly finding new ones, as well as reacquainting myself with old friends. This morning, no less than six new moths arrived; and, what’s more, three of them were really quite common ones which had simply never happened to pitch up in my garden.

First, a Hawk-moth whose large cousin, Elephant Hawk-moth, is a regular visitor – Small Elephant Hawk-moth:

This one was a bit tatty, but it’s a moth I’ve been looking forward to catching for some time now, so great to see.

Then, the second one is a moth that I can’t believe I’ve never caught, one of the best of the ‘bird-dropping’ camouflage moths – Chinese Character:

I love this moth, not least since it’s so unlike a moth! It really is just a blob of bird-poo, and though the photo doesn’t capture it well, it even glistens a bit in the sun like it’s fresh.

Third, of the macros, was this one – a lovely fresh Broom Moth.

Though Townsend’s guide says it’s common, the recent Atlas of moths (Randle et al, 2020) says that its abundance has decreased by 88% since 1970. It’s worth reflecting on this figure – of every 100 Broom moths in 1970, 88 of them have nowadays disappeared, so it’s lack of attendance at my trap my be less surprising than it might seem.

After these macros, three micros. First, (and as ever with the health warning that micro ID is hard and I’m happy to be corrected) Aspilapteryx tringipennella, one of the lovely family of Gracillariidae which ‘stand up’ on their front legs.

Then, Epinotia tedella, Common Spruce Moth, which presumably came out of the rather scruffy spruce trees at the end of our garden.

Though it’s small, it’s also extremely smart with a rather zebra-like appearance.

Finally, and frustratingly, this is Pseudatemelia flavifrontella (/josephinae):

The frustration is the need for the ‘slash’ and the second possible specific name. Both flavifrontella and josephinae look very similar, and the guide said that it was impossible to tell them apart without dissection. However, flavifrontella flies earlier. from about now, with josephinae not until mid-June; however, having consulted our county moth recorder, the heat of recent weeks means that it’s hard to be sure. More frustratingly, it turns out that I could have separated them by looking at the abdomen … but I’d let it go! You live and learn.

Finally, to illustrate the way in which the content of your trap can be surprising in many ways, two moths were trapped which I’ve had before – many times in the latter case – but which would be a great catch for people in other regions of the country. These are the very local micro Evergestis limbata, Dark Bordered Pearl, and the Geometrid Portland Ribbon Wave.

The limbata I caught on 3rh September 2018, just the once. The Wave is surely breeding nearby though as I’m getting them regularly this year and last, and also had them previously when I lived in Exmouth – along with other trappers who are finding them nearby. It’s another example of a moth that, contrary to the Broom moth above, is doing well – spreading out from it’s original lone site in Portland, Dorset.

What a great morning – the perfect example of what mothing is all about for me. Always a surprise amongst the Heart and Darts … which were up to 49!

Privet Hawkmoth

With another cold night predicted I nearly didn’t set the trap yesterday evening, but I decided to put it on anyway. As is often the case it brought me a wonderful surprise come the morning in the shape of my first ever self-caught Privet Hawkmoth.

This isn’t an uncommon moth, and I’ve seen one caught by someone else, but somehow it has evaded my trap in the past. Measuring about 2.5 inches long it has beauty and beast rolled into one, with a jet black head and beautiful white antennae – feathered here which I’m assuming means it’s a male.

Although this is impressive enough, it’s when it opens its wings that you really appreciate the beauty, revealing pink and black stripes on body and hind-wings.

What a fabulous moth. Surely one of the most impressive UK moths of all … and, as a short coda, up for a fight too. When I’d laid it back in the herb bed by the trap it flipped itself down onto the ground where a male blackbird decided to have a go at it! In defence the moth spreads its wings and ‘flips’ forward so that it appears to be rearing up, stripes and all. This is a common defense among the Sphingidae (Hawkmoths) as well as with other moths at this time of year including the Notodontidae such as the Prominents. In this case it was enough for the blackbird to back off; 1 – 0 to the moths!

Elsewhere, on Saturday I took a new pheromone lure up to the coastpath above the house to look for Thrift Clearwing. There’s a lovely patch of thrift up there, and more, smaller patches heading up the path beyond it too. Unfortunately, after 45 mins or so there were still no males around so I’m assuming that there are none about at the moment – quite probably at all. I’ll try again in a couple of week’s time. For info, there’s a picture here.

Thrift Clearwing is pretty much restricted to the far west and south of England and Wales, with a few Irish records too. The latest Atlas of macro moths (Randle et al, 2020) suggests that Devon records are restricted to the south and west of Exeter, down the coast of the South Hams and into Cornwall. I was therefore keen to see if there were any in this area, further East than the Atlas records them, but they are hard to come by and no luck so far.

Prominent display

A warmer, slightly damp night brought 32 moths of 21 species. Best of these were a whole selection of the ‘Prominents’, from the family Notodontidae. These are wonderful moths, large and slender with fantastic colours. Below are Pebble, Iron and Swallow Prominent, all new for the year:

Also in the same family was Puss Moth, again new for the year, though judging by the transparency of the wings, not newly hatched out:

Moths, including the sub-set of butterflies, are lepidoptera which comes from the Greek ‘scale-wing’ (pterodactyl, the flying dinosaur, has the same root) and are covered in tiny scales which give them their colours – through both colouring in the scales and the way light gets refracted and reflected from them. As they age these scales drop off and wings can, like this puss moth, become completely translucent.

Also different last night was the first small flush of geometrids – including 11 Brimstone Moths and another Grey Pine Carpet. The latter is tricky to distinguish from Spruce Carpet, but I think the smooth-ish edging to the centre bar and the dark patches on the trailing edge suggest Grey Pine.

But the best of the goemetrids was this Silver-ground Carpet, absolutely mint fresh and with beautiful browns in the wings:

Silver-ground Carpet

On top of this, though common and very much annual in the garden, the first Peppered Moth is always beautiful to see, along with the first Garden Carpet of the year too.

The only other thing of note was a micro, Syndemis musculana, which was new to the garden and only trapped once before in my last house.

It’s a common enough moth, but that’s one of the great things about moth trapping – you can fail completely to find common stuff if it doesn’t happen to be local, and get the rarities dropping in if you are lucky!

Quick update

Not much to report in the trap over the last week or so, in part because of the very welcome wet weather which has been great for the garden, but prevented me putting the trap out so much. However, though low in numbers, moths at this time of year are often good-lookers, as these ones illustrate.

These are, clockwise from top left, Brindled Beauty, Mullein, Chocolate-tip and Buff-tip.

I’ve had very few geometrids, even though I’ve been getting up early enough to be confident of finding them before they’ve flown, or having been taken by the local Great Tits. Apart from Early Thorn, the only geometrid of note has been this one …

Grey Pine Carpet

I was so ready to find Common Marbled Carpet that my first reaction was to ID it as such, but I think this is actually Grey Pine Carpet – though it’s difficult to separate these from the other similar Pine, Juniper and Spruce Carpets. This guide, from the excellent Eakringbirds really helps though, and allows me to be fairly confident.

Other than that, there’s really not been much about, but I’m hopeful that some warmer weather, after rain to soften the ground, might mean that more moths are hatching out this week.

Spring Moths

This week has signaled the start of the mothing year for me. Whilst there have been a few species coming to the trap over the last month or so, the sunny, but cool, weather has finally brought some real Spring heat and, with it, a greater diversity of moths.

As well as the surprise of their arrival, I like this time of year for the moths themselves. They tend to be funky, like this Coxcomb Prominent which is common, but, happily, still a lifer for me:

Of course ‘funky’ is simply my human construction – they are just doing their moth thing – and I’ve been wondering if this ‘funkiness’ is actually more about the necessities of being a small creature at this time of year. Two factors of survival come to mind: first, the temperature, which can still dip towards 0⁰C; second, the fact that there are relatively few moths about, but at a time of year when birds are veraciously feeding up young and bats have started to emerge from torpidity to fatten. Indeed, I witnessed a fabulous aerial battle between a large moth and a Common Pipistrelle the other night – the moth evading capture by the skin of its teeth.

These two factors certainly explain the three features I’ve noticed in my trap this week. Firstly, you could solve the problem of temperature by wrapping up warm, like one of these:

This paper by Heinrich (1987) has some interesting things to say about heat regulation in moths, including the point that these ‘hairs’ are actually derivatives of the scales that cover the whole moth but do play an important role in heat retention. Moths also ‘shiver’ their wings to heat up and anyone who runs a trap will have seen this happening as moths which have been static overnight in the trap get ready to fly off again. My favourite in terms of ‘hairy’ moths is Pale Tussock – not trapped yet this year, but an historical picture here:

Pale Tussock

So what about evading predators. Two strategies are apparent from the trap. First, just breed in large numbers, with some camouflage built in, but not in a big way. Hebrew Character and Common Quaker are good examples here; frequent in number and with some Spring-coloured patterning on the wings:

The second approach is to breed more sparsely but be really good at camouflage. The Coxcomb Prominent is a good example, here disappearing into a tree:

Or this Angle Shades, which is so like a fallen Autumn leaf, hanging on into Spring, that you would be hard pressed to notice it; and the Frosted Green, that is simply a mossy tree trunk in all but biology!

Or a final strategy, that hasn’t quite acknowledged the locked-down nature of the world at the moment and still thinks that international travel is ok – immigration. Though not yet in full swing, this Silver Y has likely flown in from warmer climes to find a breeding partner here in the UK.

Silver Y

Spring moths … endlessly fascinating and some of the best ‘lookers’. You have to love ’em …

Heinrich, B. (1987). Thermoregulation in Winter Moths. Scientific American, 256(3), 104-111.

Chocolate Bees and Wandering Parasites

We have a rather scruffy, overgrown rose bush in our garden which has been taken over by ivy so that the two are entwined. It stands alone in the middle of the lawn, like some rather grotesque living statue and whilst its attraction to the eye lasts for just a few weeks as the rose blooms, for insects it’s a real haven and it buzzes with life all Spring and Summer.

Today I noticed several bees around it, three of which make a nice trio … though with a sticky ending in store. Before I go any further I would qualify all I’m about to say with a caution, which is that I’m not great with bees. Thanks to a few more expert than me, via Twitter, I’m fairly confident that I’ve got the ID right, but happy to be corrected!

First, lots of these little chaps have been buzzing round the bush all week:

I think this is a male Chocolate Mining Bee – Andrena scotica. It’s certainly a male, as it has 13, rather than 12, segments to the antennae, which a close up against a pale background often makes it easy-ish to identify. These little guys, no more than a cm long, have been endlessly patrolling the bush all week, rarely stopping for photos, though this one was obliging enough, posing at the end of a hot day on a nice yellow leaf. The source of their activity was soon evident, I think, as this beautiful female landed soon after nearby:

Love was certainly in the air, as these Tapered Drone flies (Eristalis pertinax) illustrated, with a mating embrace that lasted long enough for good photo opportunities!

However, for the Mining Bees, though love may ensue and, true to their name, eggs will be laid in a hole burrowed in the ground, all is not well. Nearby, buzzing round the same bush, was this sneaky critter:

Though it mimics a wasp – to prevent attack by other predators – this is actually a Nomad bee. Though the photo isn’t ideal, being snatched in haste as it sat momentarily still, having taken some ID advice I think this is Nomada marshamella – Marsham’s Nomad Bee. The Nomads are a group of quite similar bees, mainly wasp-like and all being parasites of other bees. It’s trick is to follow the Mining bees to their nest and then, when all is quiet, they nip in and lay an egg. As this hatches, it then devours the eggs of the Mining bee, and any food stores laid down, before leaving the nest and making its own way in life. For this reason the Nomads are also often called Cuckoo Bees.

Last year I found N. flavopicta, Blunthorn Nomad bee, which attacks the larvae of ‘Blunthorn’ (Melitta) bees. I’ve also had N. fucata – Painted Nomad Bee – too in the past, which is parasitical of Andrena flavipes, the Yellow-legged Mining Bee. However, N. marshamella was new to me and a nice pleasing find.

As for the Chocolate Bees though, it’s a story of love, lust and loss.

Andrena dorsata and other bees …

It’s been lovely, amongst all the negative news, to spend time mooching in the garden today. I started by checking the moth trap, almost empty after a very cold night that dropped to 3.4C, but with this fabulous Oak Beauty on the paving slabs nearby:

As the sun picked up the bees started appearing in numbers and the highlight of the day was a mining bee that was new for me and the garden – Andrena dorsata, Short-fringed Mining Bee (possibly A. congruens … but this is very rare here and so unlikely).

One of the lovely things about Twitter is that you can be in touch with people who you wouldn’t otherwise be able to contact. I’m lucky to be able to say that this was ID’d by Steven Falk, whose book ‘Field Guide to the Bees of GB and Ireland’ is the best on the market. An exciting find for me and such a privilege to have expert knowledge on hand to help

I’d love to be able to find a bumblebee nest nearby and I’m sure there must be new ones sprouting up – or rather digging down, since they nest in holes in the ground, often those left behind by rodents. There have certainly been a good number of new queens visiting the garden, particularly Buff-tailed BBs, including some lovely big ones cruising at low level looking for nesting sites. Today though, the workers were out in force, suggesting that local nests are up and running …

I’ve been checking these B. terrestris carefully for White-tailed BBs – B. lucorum – which have, unsurprisingly, white tails rather than buff and are described as having lemony-yellow stripes rather than the darker yellow of terrestris. Moreover, whilst the queen terrestris live up to their buff-tailed name, their workers also have white tails and so I’ve felt unsure that I’m getting the right ID on them all. I potted a few up this afternoon, particularly those which seemed to be brighter yellow-striped, and checked the tails. Despite the lemony look to their stripes, I feel confident that all those shown below are terrestris because I can see a slightly buffy band at the point where the white joins the black … (but please put me right if you know better).

Amongst these workers I came across several lovely queen Tree Bumblebees too (B. hypnorum). These are really smart, with a gingery thoracic pile and the white tail.

Their name comes from the fact that they nest in trees, unlike most other BBs which, as noted above, look for ground holes to nest in. I’ve also seen Red-tailed queens on the wing the last couple of days, as well as Early Bumblebee; this one finding its way into our bathroom where I managed to rescue it. Note the apricot orange tip to the tail, the smaller size and the scruffier look to its hair-pile compared to the Buff-tails.

Finally, a few hoverflies are emerging too. These are both Eristalis pertinax, Tapered Drone Fly (I think … yellow tarsi on front and middle legs and triangular abdomen), a common Spring hoverfly.

I love seeing these buzzing about, defending a little patch of space over a shrub of some sort and chasing off rivals.

One can only wish that the awful effects of Coronavirus might soon subside. However, I was moved this week by the words of Terry Waite, held hostage in Beirut for 5 years and largely in solitary confinement, who reportedly said that we should remember that we are not trapped in our homes, we are safe in our homes. I consider myself so lucky that I live in such a lovely place to find safety, with a garden to enjoy. I hope you are safe in your space too, wherever it may be.