Butterflies of the Night

Moths? Aren’t they all brown and boring?

guernsey-underwing-polyphaenis-viridisWhen I first show people some of the moths I have trapped overnight, the first reaction is amazement at the colours, patterns, variety of forms and “resting” positions shown by the moths. I guess this is because most of us do not see many moths in our daily lives, since many species are nocturnal, whereas butterflies are much more obvious. Most people concede that butterflies are both beautiful and colourful, but it comes as a surprise to learn that many moths can be equally attractive and vivid. It is only when an attempt is made to attract the moths to a light trap or sugar rope that an opportunity arises to study them and photograph them whilst they perch quietly. Again many have had experience of a moth flying around a lighted room, often a bedroom, and being nothing other than annoying! Even I, keen as I am on them, do not choose to share my bedroom with one!

ocnogyna-zoraidaThe next question I am often asked is “What made you interested in moths?” It is a very recent hobby, only started when I arrived in Spain 11 years ago. My husband had studied them on the Isles of Scilly together with his “mothing” mate Mike Hicks. Together they had produced a book on the distribution and species found there. I had condescended to look at the occasional beautiful Hawkmoth but my interest went no further than that. Birds were my first love. On moving here, I thought John might miss his mothing mate and so I would show some interest when the trap was set up. Quickly I became totally “hooked” on this new hobby, amazed by the numbers of beautiful insects we were seeing. John, on the other hand, quickly realized that 80% of the moths we were seeing were unknown to him and that there were no published field guides to these new species. His interest waned as mine grew! I suggested we produce our own photo albums with the species given numbers if we could not as yet name them. Mark Tunmore, editor of Atropos, an English magazine for which John had written in the past, encouraged me to write the first of many “letters from Andalucia”. An almost immediate result of this first letter was an email from Peder Skou in Denmark telling me about some books I might find helpful, written by Culot 100 years ago in French. They had just been re-printed in 4 volumes and covered the two biggest families of moths – the noctuids and the geometrids. Written in a wonderful chatty style – my French was good enough to understand them – Culot wrote that unfortunately he didn’t have a specimen of some of the moths as “communications were a little difficult at the moment”. This wonderful understatement was a reference to the first World War raging through France then.

arctia-villica-angelicaPeder Skou’s email was my first contact with what is now a network of European lepidopterists who have helped me via the internet. The best experts have become my friends and tutors, from Russia, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Spain and of course the UK. Our finca is a paradise for moths, with over 850 species recorded including several new for Spain and one, Eublemma candicans, thought extinct for 100 years and as yet unknown from any other location. This is largely because of the fantastic habitat here, comprising “tierra forestal, rugged mountainside, as well as meadow with more than 200 wildflower species. No insecticide or herbicide has been used on the finca for well over 20 years. Golf courses and farms growing oranges, both of which rely heavily on insecticides reduce the no of moths drastically.

eublemma-ostrinaThe moths attracted by a mercury vapour lamp into the trap, are photographed in the morning perched on eggboxes. They usually fly the following evening, unless it is very hot when some fly as soon as the trap is opened. Photographs of all 850 species are in 13 albums, in Spanish systematic order. Michael Fibiger who was Europe’s top noctuid expert until his death earlier this year, and Axel Hausmann, probably Europe’s top geometrid expert, have both visited and were both equally concerned that my photographs might be lost to science, from a fire for instance. So now these photos have been put onto several Picassa web albums which have been shared with any interested parties and hopefully will not be lost in the stratosphere!

euhrodope cruentellaI am still no scientist as my degree was in English, drama and philosophy! Several years ago, Professor José Yela, my Spanish mentor, arranged for me to go to Madrid Natural History Museum where I was given a binocular microscope and several trays of moths but as I had never used a binocular microscope, I felt a little out of my depth! Now, however, I have a new nickname “the moth lady”. A friend who lives up near Granada tells me he is often asked by visiting naturalists – “Do you know the moth lady?”- If I am introduced to birders or other naturalists for the first time locally, they usually exclaim “Oh, you’re the moth lady!”

acrobasis porphyrellaIn the last few years, up to 30 new books on European moths have been published, including 12 volumes just on noctuid moths. Michael Fibiger finished the latter series shortly before his untimely death. I was surprised and touched when it included a new species for science named Conistra haleae “in my honour”. There is so much still to be learned and very few of us “in the field”in Spain. I’m told that knowledge here remains on a par with what was known of UK moths in the 1920s. So if you want a new and absorbing hobby and have a garden, consider taking up “mothing”. You too may find it as fascinating and challenging as I have and I could do with some fellow “mothers”!

Article by Penny Hale

The author welcomes moth enthusiasts to share their experiences here in Andalucia. Penny also has accommodation available for those who wish to hire their own self-contained Casita and may want to join-in with mothing sessions. For those wishing to contact Penny, please use this LINK and we will pass-on your details and contact information.

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