Marvellous moths

Moths of The Sefton Coast

Overlooked and undervalued, moths are the Cinderella of lepidoptera. Butterflies get all the glory, but at night, moths come to life in colourful finery with intricate patterns.

Many people only experience moths when they're flapping around the bathroom light or nibbling our woolly jumpers in the wardrobe. In these cases it's understandable that we don't find them endearing. In fact, only one moth (larvae) out of 2500 species in the UK eats wool and they're incredibly beautiful and fascinating creatures.

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

How to tell the difference between moths and butterflies

It's not as simple as day and night, as there are some moths fly during the day. The best way to tell the difference between a butterfly and moth is by their antennae – butterflies have a club-shaped antennae with a little ball at the end , whilst moths’ are feathery or saw-shaped. Moths also rest with their wings flat, whilst most butterflies fold their wings upright. 

Why are moths important?

Like butterflies, moths are an ‘indicator species’. They’re great pollinators and a vital link in the food chain, providing a food source for mammals and birds and bat snacks throughout their life cycle. Regular surveys of the volume and variety of moth species can tell our rangers a lot about the health of the landscape they look after and the effects of climate change.

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 see them

Trapping is one way to get to see the beauty of moths up close (find out how below). It doesn't harm the moths and allows you to see their intricately patterned wings by daylight.

In the UK you could see elephant hawk moths, which have chunky bodies and are beautifully patterned in magenta and mustard brown. Lime hawk moths have perfect army-camouflage patterning and ermine moths have a luxurious, snowy fur ruff and black spots like a royal cloak.

Weird and wonderful behaviour

Besides their beauty, it's moths' weird and wonderful behaviours that make them fascinating.

Some camouflage themselves to avoid detection by predators so that they look exactly like the lichen or bark of a tree where they live. Others have evolved great mimicry skills. When a hawk moth caterpillar feels threatened, its body swells up to the shape of a snake's head with two huge black markings like beady eyes. 

There are other moths whose markings disguise them as birds or even bird poo to avoid being eaten. Some moths use squeaks to confuse bats into not eating them and bees into not stinging them so they can steal their honey.

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

Finding a mate

The short life-span of moths means mating is a priority and it’s here that moth behaviour can get really crazy. Moths locate other moths by scent and the Emperor male can sniff out a female from five miles away. 

Some moths serenade the object of their affection with ultrasonic singing. There’s one species which employs a very dirty trick. The Asian micro-moth mimics the hunting call of a bat. The female then stays absolutely still to avoid attracting the attention of the supposed predator. The dastardly Lothario then takes the opportunity to nip in and mate with her whilst she’s frozen with fear.

However, when it comes to reproduction, bagworm moths are the weirdest. The females have no wings and live their whole life in a silken case. After mating, she pokes her head out of the bag and waggles it at a passing bird so that they’ll eat her and disperse the eggs, as these pass through the predator’s digestive system unharmed. 

And we thought we sacrificed a lot for our kids.