Monday, 25 September 2017

A mega moth trap

I have often fantasised about taking the moth trap on holidays abroad - an impossible dream because it is much to big and cumbersome to ferry around, even if we were to go by car. Likewise, I have sometimes gazed wistfully at advertisements in entomological or natural history magazines for cottages and villas to let on the Continent which come complete with a moth trap. Penny would draw the line at that.

However, on our week in Portugal from which we returned yesterday, I did indeed have a moth trap - and a very big one. Our hotel's swimming pool was set in lovely, rather wild gardens and its underwater lights were left on all night. You can see some of the results here. Come the morning, several dozen moths were suspended on the pool's surface, clamped like prisoners by the surface tension and moving slowly but surely towards the doom of the filter outlets.

I learned after a couple of early morning swims that it was handy to get to the pool before the gardener/handyman who dutifully netted debris from the pool first thing. I enjoyed chatting to him in a strange mixture of English and something vaguely like Portuguese although probably tending more towards Spanish. But although we got as far as 'mariposa' and 'borboletta' - words in both languages for 'butterfly' - I didn't try to complicate his life by appealing for a netting delay while I waded about with the iPad Mini, taking pictures.

A Yellow-tail - a species notoriously shy about showing its eponymous feature. This one had little choice.

The answer was to have my swim a little earlier. I managed to do this and even to build in time to rescue most of the apparent victims. The moths looked dead, apart from one or two which were struggling feebly, but once you scooped them out and decanted them on to the stone, decking or even nearby tree-trunks, they recovered speedily. Here are some examples:

I think that the bottom moth is a Portuguese example of the Yellow Belle, a moth which is only locally found in the UK - one of the locales being a regular stamping ground for me in my journalism days: Greenham Common near Newbury, scene of the famous women's protests against cruise missiles.

I have yet to discover the ID of most of the moths shown in this post, but this one is a Portuguese example of our familiar Scalloped Oak. I think, incidentally, that the moth in my top picture may be a Portuguese Straw Belle.

My most curious observations, however, were of a half-dozen or so moths which were perched at least an inch underwater, clinging to the side of the pool, thoroughly alive and apparently contented with their surroundings. When I eased them off and put them down in the sunshine, they too recovered. There is plenty on the web about moths and other insects' ability to spend time underwater, including a piece on a Hawaiian moth which seems happy in both elements. There is also the example of dragonflies, whose first three stages of life are spent in water. But I hope to read more, not only about the breathing issue but also about the waterproof-ness or otherwise of moths' wings - note the bubbles of air clinging to the ones below. In butterflies, which are generally larger and more delicately made, these would seem the main vulnerability of a dip, but there seems reason to believe that the complex structure of scales and membranes is water-resistant, provided that the insect does not panic and thrash around.  

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bom dia!

You can tell from today's top picture that we're not going to be dealing with UK moths in this post; behold the glories of a Swallowtail, the UK's largest native butterfly but very seldom to be seen outside its few remaining sanctuaries in the East Anglian Fens.

That is the opposite of the case in Portugal where Penny and I have just had a marvellous week, staying in the countryside of the Lower Alentejo, close to the mighty Atlantic Ocean beaches from which Vasco da Gama & Co set sail.

This Swallowtail was roaming majestically around the ruins of the Roman town of Mirobriga on the edge of the mediaeval settlement of Santiago do Cacem where a bevy of other butterflies, notably a bright orange one resembling a fiery Brimstone, were swooping around the fine hilltop castle, sadly out of range of my iPad Mini's lens. The Swallowtail was more accommodating. It took me for a modest but sun-drenched stalk before posing perfectly on what appeared to be a dead flower. Dead or not, it occupied the butterfly's attention for a good five minutes.

Hence the top picture; otherwise I would have had to be content with the second or third where you may have to play 'Find the Butterfly' for quite a while - I've added a couple of enlarged details to give you a hand.  Back at our base, between the inland town of Cercal and the pretty estuary port of Vila Nova de Milfontes, I spent further drowsy spells pursuing the somewhat jumbo versions of Hedge and Meadow Browns shown below.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


A friend who stayed recently has been in touch with these pictures of his hop plants - and, of more interest to me, their current inhabitants. Fortunately he is not a brewer and does not depend on the hops for his living, for these are Comma butterfly caterpillars and chrysalises, a species which munches hops as if there was no tomorrow.  

By coincidence, I was admiring an adult Comma in the garden only on Wednesday as it flitted about in the sunshine, showing off its glorious, vivid russet colouring. This always sets my pulse racing in case the butterfly is one of the fritillaries, those aristocrats of the insect world which share the Comma's colours. Here are some examples of Commas from earlier blog posts:

 The other cheering thing about the Comma is that its recovery from meagre numbers in the 19th century is one of the great success stories of UK butterflies. You can read more on this previous post - - as well as about the role in the story of a distinguished woman entomologist, Edith Hutchinson, pictured below. The magazine of Butterfly Conservation in her native county of Warwickshire is appropriately named - see right - and the best-known variant of the Comma, the paler form common in early Summer, is named after her - variety hutchinsonii.

In the US the Comma has a close relative called the Question Mark, but we will deal with moths and punctuation another time.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Johnny House-moth

The weather has turned very chilly and the trap is quiet as a result albeit with the colourful Sallow family, among them the Centre-barred example above, keeping things from getting too dull. I wrapped the base of the trap in a large and colourful Farmers' Market banner last night which looked touchingly like a thoughtful scarf but was actually an attempt to provide nooks and crannies for visitors reluctant to venture past the mercury vapour bulb.

This had no obvious effect; its only resident was a solitary Black Rustic. But inside the eggboxes, among a scattering of yellow underwings and Setaceous Hebrew Characters, I was pleased to find the tiny scrap of a micro shown above and below. This is the White-shouldered House Moth or Endrosis sarcitrella and it performs a useful scavenging function. 

Its larvae munch on decayed animal and vegetable matter which is excellent, provided that you keep your larder clean and make sure your boxes of Corn Flakes are kept shut. In terms of keeping our garden shed tidy, there are no downsides and sarcitrella is a welcome guest.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Bright spark

After yesterday's self-indulgence with the Burnished Brass picture, you might have expected something more sober this morning. But you would have been wrong. Another moth which I cannot resist photographing and showing is the Gold Spot, or possibly the closely-related Lempcke's Gold Spot; the differences are too fine for a crude observer such as myself to detect. Especially when it chooses to settle in a delta shape, as this one did. 

The position shows the teardrop nature of the main reflective/refractive scale sections and also the cheery tuft of hair on its head which reminds me of a cheeky-chappy singer of my youth, Joe Brown - remember him?  It was altogether a cheerful assembly in the eggboxes and on the trap itself, including these three Centre-barred Sallows, in varying condition. The fourth picture shows the third moth upside down and looking rather startled after I upset it from its nook on the bulbholder and before it landed safely on my palm.

Another extremely agreeable visitor was the Gothic moth below, appropriately because yesterday P and I spent a couple of hours in York Minister at a good friend's memorial service. The delicate tracery on the wings of this species, a lover of damp surroundings and weedy hedgerows and therefore at home here, is delightfully delicate in exactly the manner of the great cathedral's Gothic architecture, left.

I also recorded the year's first 'Darth Vader Moth', the Black Rustic immediately below, and the two other gentlemen (or possibly ladies) in my final pair of pictures. These are common moths for this time of year but I always get in a tizz and need time to tell these sort of average-brown-or-grey moths apart, I haven't yet had enough. I will, however, guess as follows: 1. Vine's Rustic. 2. Square-spot Rustic. If correct, that's three rustics in  a row.