Sunday, 4 September 2011

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: In search of another great moth snowstorm

One of the lousiest aspects of the lousy summer which ended yesterday, for me at least, was that for yet another year, there was no chance of witnessing the moth snowstorm. Not in England, anyway.

Five sodden summers on the trot – July 2006 was the last time it was truly baking for anything more than the blink of an eye – seems like an unconscionably long time to go without all-enveloping warmth, almost as if we're being punished. Maybe we are. Maybe we've offended heaven by having impure hearts. Or giving way to greed. Or splitting infinitives. Or something.

But the point I am making about yet another wretchedly damp and chilly June, July and (especially) August, is that if it was bad for us, it was even worse for insects, which, being cold-blooded, need ambient heat above a certain level simply to be able to function, let alone flourish. There was no chance of seeing of one of the spectacular flourishings of the insect world, that crowding-together of moths on warm summer nights, so abundant that if you drive a car through them you have to wash your windscreen afterwards.

In the headlights it does indeed seem like a blizzard, a myriad of white flakes whirling through the dark towards you. Or at least it did. For the moth snowstorm, as I and many people think of it and remember it, seems to be a phenomenon of the past. When I asked Mark Parsons about it, the top moths bod at the charity Butterfly Conservation, he told me he recalled seeing it on many occasions 20 or 30 years ago, but, he said, "I've probably only witnessed it once or twice in the last decade".

Its disappearance seems to be a particularly notable instance of the great thinning-out of our wildlife which has taken place in the last half-century, probably because of the intensification of farming: things are still there, but an awful lot fewer of them. Yet it was a supreme example of natural abundance, arising from the simple fact that moths are multitudinous.

We tend to think that Lepidoptera, the order of insects with scaly wings, contains butterflies first and moths second, as a sort of afterthought; but actually it's the other way round. Moths were going for millions of years, and so had ample time to develop into a multitude of species, before butterflies came along as a mere branching twig on the Lepidopteran evolutionary tree; in essence, butterflies are merely a group of moths which have specialised in flying during the day and so have evolved bright colours to recognise each other.

Thus, there are about a quarter of a million moth species in the world but fewer than 20,000 types of butterfly; and in Britain there are nearly 900 larger moths, while butterfly species number fewer than 60.

We don't see this, because most moths are nocturnal. Yet it is possible to fish them out of the night, if you become more and more interested in them and eventually go into full Moth Nerd Mode, as I did in June when my wife asked me what I would like for my birthday, and I said: "A moth trap".

She paused. She said: "Wouldn't you like an iPod?"

I said: "I'd like a moth trap, please."

She said: "You haven't got an iPod. They're great. You can load all your music onto them. Even the old stuff that you like. You could listen to the children's, just to get the idea. They won't mind. Why don't you have a listen?"

I said: "Moth trap."

She sighed then and went away shaking her head, but her being the good egg that she is, the moth trap duly arrived, in a parcel big enough to hold a lavatory bowl. It's basically just a box with a lamp and a narrow entrance, through which moths, attracted by the lamp, fly in, but can't get out till you release them (having identified them first from your guide).

It is astounding in its effect. On my first use of it, in west London on one of the few warm nights in June, it tempted out several species which I never dreamed were living during the day in the surrounding suburban vegetation, ranging from the dark arches and the riband wave to the broad-bordered yellow underwing.

But then in August I took it with us on holiday to Normandy, and on a sultry night in a country garden, on the edge of an orchard, it excelled itself, attracting scores and scores of examples of more than a dozen species, some of them spectacular: at midnight six Jersey Tiger moths, which are exquisite, were flying round the lamp, as part of a swarming cloud of insects flashing in and out of the halo of light.

It was the moth snowstorm, I thought. Still there, in France. But I wish I could see it in England.

The butterflies' last hurrah
As for butterflies – even though summer's over, there are three late-occurring species worth looking out for: the silver-spotted skipper, the brown hairstreak (the female of which is fabulous) and the clouded yellow, a lovely immigrant from the continent. Plus the colourful quartet of red admiral, peacock, tortoiseshell and painted lady, now in their second broods and feeding up frantically on buddleia nectar, as the first three of them are preparing to hibernate in a corner of your shed.

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