Ask someone to describe a moth and they might say: 'Hmmm... brown... a bit dull... comes out at night... eats clothes... and obsessed with flying towards lights.'
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of moths.
Anyone who thinks that moths are all boring is very much mistaken. Some of our common UK species are very brightly coloured.
Take the elephant hawk-moth, for example – decked out in an eye-popping combo of lime green and dayglo pink. If that’s too garish for you, how about the emerald moths, as beautiful as their names suggest? But for a classic colour scheme, you can’t beat the red (or orange), black and white markings of the tiger moths. Bright colours generally show a would-be predator that a moth does not taste good!
Other moths have adopted a different way of surviving. They want to blend in with their surroundings. While the oak beauty and the red underwing need to look just like the gnarled bark of a tree, the merveille du jour’s gorgeous green, black and white camouflage it against pale green lichens.
(Extra-interesting: after the Industrial Revolution, peppered moths became darker, to blend in with the UK’s increasingly sooty environment. Now we’ve cleaned up a lot, they’re much paler again)
Meantime, other moth species have adapted to resemble different objects. The Chinese character is a little white moth with brown blotches which evades its predators by looking just like a fresh bird poo. The yellow and black striped hornet moth looks just like... you guessed it – a hornet. But perhaps the best of all is the buff-tip. It looks exactly like a broken-off birch twig.
What's in a name?
Many moths have been given strange and beautiful names. Some of the best include the poplar lutestring, scorched carpet, peach blossom and ruby tiger. Then there’s the lobster moth, the geometrician, cousin German and the setaceous Hebrew character.
Don’t confuse the brown-line bright-eye with the bright-line brown-eye, will you? Or get mixed up about the uncertain moth...
Moths vary hugely in size. The hawk-moths are impressive, beautiful creatures and some species can migrate to the UK, all the way from north Africa. But much smaller moths also complete amazing feats – you might have heard about an ‘invasion’ of diamond-back moths from across the Channel. They are tiny, with a wingspan of less than 1.5 cm.
Moths in daylight
Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's a moth.
You don’t have to wait until it’s dark to see moths. Some only fly during the day – including the shiny, black and red six-spot burnet moth, and the surprising hummingbird hawk-moth. Like its name suggests, the resemblance is so close that every year, people are fooled and think they’ve spotted a hummingbird.
Another important fact: only a tiny number of moth species eat clothes. Most moth caterpillars prefer specific plants, and some adult moths don’t eat at all. Moths can lay huge numbers of eggs, but all those caterpillars that hatch help to prop up our woodland food chains – species like the winter moth are what keep our blue and great tit chicks fed.
Take another look at moths and you’re bound to be surprised by what you find!
Give nature a home
Looking to help nature? Create your personal plan and we'll suggest six simple activities to help you give nature a home where you live - including moths and butterflies.