How to start mothing

A Burnet moth and pupa

Like most pursuits, there are various levels of mothing requiring various levels of kit. Fortunately, it’s very inexpensive and easy to start with an outside light and some basic household ingredients.

Before you start, a good introduction to spark your enthusiasm is to go to a public moth trapping event. You should see a wide variety of species and there will be experts on hand to tell you about them.

However, before heading out to buy an expensive moth trap for yourself, it might be best to start lo-tech and see if you’re interested enough to invest.

Lime hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)
Lime hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)
Lime hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)

Go lo-tech

You could go out into the garden with a torch at dusk and see which moths are feeding on your plants. It helps if you have night-scented flowers such as buddleia, honeysuckle, jasmine or hebe ‘Great Orme’.

Everyone knows moths are attracted to light. If you hang a white sheet up in the garden and leave a strong torch shining on it for a couple of hours, it’s amazing what moths you’ll see.

You can easily make nectar at home to attract moths like these garden tiger moths
Garden tiger moth (Arctia caja), Norfolk Coast
You can easily make nectar at home to attract moths like these garden tiger moths

Make your own nectar

Moths will also be attracted to a syrup you can make yourself. Heat together 500ml of brown ale or cola, a kilo of dark brown sugar and a tin of black treacle. Simmer for a couple of minutes then allow to cool.

Paint the mixture at eye level on fence posts or tree trunks just before dusk. When you return with a torch once it’s dark, the moths will be enjoying a feast.

An alternative is to soak a thick rope or twisted cloth in a mixture of cheap red wine with a kilo of sugar dissolved in it. Drape the cords over low branches just before dusk and check later with a torch.

A child inspects a moth in a pot
Child inspects a moth in a pot
A child inspects a moth in a pot

How to study without harm

To study the moths you find without touching them, you can transfer them to a clear, dry glass or plastic container. If you lift them from underneath with pencil-sized soft paintbrush you’re unlikely to damage them.

If the moths are agitated in the container, putting them in a fridge or cool box for a short time calms them down.

Try and make sure you release the moths in a sheltered place away from birds and bats.

To find out more detail about moths and mothing, head to mothscount.org, the specialist website of our fellow conservation charity, Butterfly Conservation. You can also find information here about reporting your finds to County Recorders who will be hugely grateful for your data to add to their records.