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.

Higher-tech enthusiasts use the mercury-vapour light trap. This draws moths to its intense illumination, then sifts them through a funnel to settle in empty egg boxes, for leisurely morning inspection. Afterwards, you tuck them safely into a bush, sometimes wishing there weren’t quite so many all at once.

In the summer of last year an Anglo-Irish team of lepidopterists worked up to 10 light traps a night and tramped dunes, marsh and farmland to search out caterpillars, all to survey the moths of Belmullet Peninsula, in Co Mayo. One June night their traps lured 76 species of macromoth (that is, the larger species), such as Map-winged Swift, Oblique Carpet, Brussels Lace, Dark Brocade and Pinion-streaked Snout – names demanding their capitals and drawn from the long and earnest history of sugarers and honey-smearers.

The macromoths of Ireland include the lovely day-flying Emperor of heathered hills and the pink-flushed Elephant Hawkmoth, whose big, fuchsia-nibbling caterpillar – my drawing has its pseudo “eyes” swollen in annoyance – is pictured each August in puzzled “strange creature” emails to Eye on Nature. It overwinters in a chestnut-brown pupa, and there is online advice for keeping one in a jam jar for hatching next spring.

My little brassy moth was clearly one of a legion of micromoths, whose wingspan, in an arbitrary ordering, is no more than 20mm. To grasp the delicacy of collecting, displaying and identifying such insects, find the YouTube video of a young woman using tweezers and hair-fine pins to stretch one out on its polystyrene mortuary slab.

Micromoths do have some fascinating aeronautical forms. A few are like ghostly wisps of thistledown, some have bushy tails, others spread wings like Japanese fans, still more could be early designs for flying machines. One can see – just about, at that size – the charms of obsession with micromoth collection.

The Natural History Museum in London has 1.5 million specimens, pinned and spread by collectors since the mid 18th century. They must have had ways, I presume, of stopping the moths getting at them.

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