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Magic of moths

Magic of moths

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With bleak mid winter upon us and with the weather turning cold and particularly stormy, what goes on in your garden now is probably the last thing on your mind.

But at this moment though in your walls, plants and under the surface of the soil animals and insects will have gone into hibernation to be soon out again in spring.

Perhaps the least expected visitor to your garden right now would be moths.

Usually associated with the warm dusk of a summer evening, it might surprise you to know that there is a range of moths flying right now, that you can see.

Moths do however have a bit of an image problem. Compared with their brighter more flashy cousins the butterfly, moths are usually seen as the poor relation (even the term moth is 
an Old English word for maggot).

Drab in colour, rarely seen during the daytime, you might find it daunting to go out on a freezing cold night, looking for our small nocturnal moths let alone having the inclination.

However if you are prepared to take the time and trouble, you’ll find an array of truly amazing animals to look at.

In fact you would probably come away more impressed with moths.

For a start there are 2,500 types of moth in the UK compared with the 60 odd butterfly species.

They are quite unique amongst the Lepidoptera (the family which moths and butterflies make up – the name is from Greek meaning Scaled Wing).

One branch known as Noctuid moths, for example, have “ears” called tympanic organs which are sensitive to bat echolocation.

When they hear bats they dive into the undergrowth to avoid them.

Tiger Moths go one better.

They produce sounds in the frequency of the bats. It used to be thought they used them to jam the bats like you would do with radar.

However its more likely that the Tiger Moth uses it to warn bats they are unpalatable in the same way other animals display colours to frighten off predators, like the colour red for instance.

At this time of year these wintertime moths we’re looking at though only number around 20 species.

These moths take to the cold winter air around dusk looking for mates.

With their main predator bats in hibernation and most cats refusing to stay out when the nights are cold dark, these truly remarkably designed insects visit our gardens flying when the temperature plummets; they can even fly when the temperature is –20C!

Admittedly these moths live up to the stereotype of being drab and not the most exciting to look at.

To a moth however these greys, blacks and woodland browns are a life saver camouflage. Hidden on tree bark, they are quite easy to miss.

There they stay until evening conserving their precious energy when they will fly off looking for a mate.

How can we be sure that they are looking for mates? Could they be flying around our gardens looking for food?

Well look out of your kitchen window. You will notice a dearth of flowers to feed from at this time of year in the garden.

But that isn’t a problem for these moths. They don’t have working mouths!

Before they pupate (or change from a caterpillar to an adult) they do their entire life’s’ eating and store up energy reserves that they use later on.

So how can a moth that’s not able to eat and has limited reserves to fall back on, manage to fly around on consecutive nights that we humans would find too cold?

These moths have various biological tricks up their sleeves.

Inside their tiny bodies are special fluids containing various biochemical salts which keep their wings from freezing up as well as producing its own antifreeze in the form of glycerol.

Special muscles also keep the moths flying in extremely low temperatures. You might have noticed that these moths appear to be furry.

They are not in fact these are specially adapted scales but they keep moths warm.

However flying does use up quite a bit of energy, hence the staying put during the daytime.

Some female moths like the Winter Moth and Mottled Umber (both common garden visitors) don’t have any wings at all.

These live on the trees where they will lay eggs in the budding leaf tips, so that newly hatched caterpillars can feed on the newly opened leaves.

It’s quite rare to see a female and if you do, unless you are an entomologist, you would find it quite hard to recognise one – they resemble six legged spiders.

So if you see a moth flying around the chances are it’s a male.

By the time the moths have found a mate and produced the next generation for the next winter, their energy has been expended and life cycle complete, they then die off.

As they come into the garden to breed there is very little for us to do except going out to watch them.

Switching on an outside light or opening the curtains will attract them to your window.

Ever wondered why light attracts them?

Simply put moths apply the angle of the moon at night to their flightplan to navigate by – the term is called Light Compass Orientation.

When an artificial light, such as a streetlamp is encountered, it throws the angle of the moon off, confusing the moth and makes it constantly correct its flight leading it to fly around in circles around the light.

We can do something to help the caterpillars when they hatch, but as they feed on plant tissue rather than nectar the majority of us might not want our shrubs munched – the name caterpillar comes from the Old French for hairy ravaging cat.

Some are notorious for eating the spring foliage of apple orchards and they maybe quite rightly viewed as one of agriculture’s biggest menaces.

But that shouldn’t colour our view of moths this winter.

These amazing creatures deserve our respect and admiration!