I have always been strangely fond of moths – where most people react with annoyance and a swift swipe with a rolled-up newspaper whenever one traipses in from outside, I’m always very glad to see one. I like their tiny feet, phantom wings, and silent flight. When I was at university in Durham I often used to sit with window open, trying to catch one as it flew into the light cast by my desk-lamp. I once caught a buff ermine moth down by the river Weir – after goading it into my hands I began the insurmountable task of trying to get my friends to touch its soft and fluffy coat, though my efforts were met with shrieks and flurries of feet pounding in the opposite direction. Many of the moths in England are truly beautiful creatures – you’d be forgiven for thinking that all British moths look like those little brown things that tumble over the window sill like scraps of parcel paper, but many are astonishingly striking and exotic-looking.
Magpie Moth (Abraxus grossulariata)
The magpie moth is a common sight throughout the summer, and loves light and shiny objects as much as its corvine namesake. These pretty moths were once a great favourite with collectors because they could easily be bred to create forms with new and unusual patterns – they were the perfect guinea pig. Their black spots and yellow splodges to me look like the ink splodges one might find in a psychiatrist’s office, or the print of a dress, reminding me of how often silly images can overlap human and nature.
This colourful little splodge is widespread in our gardens, parks and open country, cutting through the gloom with its rich pink and green colouring. The most astounding thing about these moths is their eyesight, which is perfect colour-vision, even when it is too dark to see at all. Its young larvae are especially striking – the moth gets its name from their long, trunk-like noses.
A summer visitor from Africa, you may recognise these creatures from a certain well-known movie poster. If you look closely, you’ll spot an astounding pattern on the moth’s back, an eerily distinctive skull-shaped pattern. This huge (and huge they are – we found two in our garden shed last summer and my mum mistook them for mice!) and relatively rare moth loves honey, and will often sneak into beehives in search of its favourite treat. Once there, it displays another peculiar characteristic: it squeaks. It’s thought that this noise pacifies the bees, but if you pick one up it will make the same noise, so it may also be a defence mechanism. Or perhaps it just has a very excitable personality!
The white plume moth looks like a wispy, skeletal fairy; a moth shape cut out from tissue paper. Its feather-like wings and long, spindly legs can be found especially dotted on wasteland.