Another Life: Don’t swipe at that moth with a rolled-up magazine
We’re waking up to the insects’ beauty, diversity and frequent mystery
Moths of a warm autumn nuzzle my lighted window, their little eyes glittering like rubies. Sometimes I leave it open, to see what might wander in. I think of my childhood terror of some furry-headed intruder bouncing around the walls of my bedroom, and how sad there was no one in the family to effect, as it were, some intelligent attempt at introduction, rather than swiping wildly with a rolled-up magazine.
The moth that came in the other night settled quietly on my pyjama sleeve – the arm propping up a Henning Mankel – and seemed content just to gaze into the chilly brilliance of my LED reading lamp.
There is much to be learned about the different wavelengths of light, whether from candle flame or light-emitting diode, and their differential reception by the multipronged antennae of different moths, but I think I can give it a miss. My moth may have seen the bulb as a moon or star, by which to navigate, or as the sun, by which to go to sleep – and that, by the comfortable stillness of its perch, seemed likely.
What held my own gaze, at the short squint to my bicep, was the utterly beautiful iridescence of its closed underwings – a cool, antique sort of glow, like old church brass. That, and its smallness for a moth, its vertically closed wings perhaps a centimetre high. Keen to see their upper sides, which is what the books provide, I nudged its tail. The glimpse this offered, in the moth’s panicky retreat into the (inedible) curtains, was of a dark-brown geometry like a 1930s armchair. There are far too many rows of closely similar wings on the pages of moth-identification guides, so I went back to the latest sinister plot twist in Sweden.
The beauty, diversity and frequent mystery of moths are beginning to find a popular response, prompted by new websites that offer photographs of live moths in the field. Mothsireland.com is the one for recording sightings and distribution maps; irishmoths.net offers a gorgeous gallery from Jenny Seawright, photographed mostly in her garden in Co Cork. At the other end of the island, Robert Thompson’s photographs in the Ulster Museum’s Butterflies and Moths of Northern Ireland are among the most dazzling ever made.
Lure of sugar
All this is far from the pioneering years of Irish entomology in the early 1800s, when collectors haunted the woods of Killarney to practise “sugaring” as the new way of trapping moths. They perfected their own treacle mixes (such as molasses with brown ale or rum), brushed on to tree trunks at dusk before the moths began to fly. Even better was an empty beehive smeared on the outside with honey. Today’s recipes add a mash of over-ripe bananas.