Worth Repeating: Moths…and what they tell us about life

Heart and Dart moth

From the Dabbler archives we present this post from Martin Wainwright, which originally appeared in September 2010. Martin has written numerous invaluable books about the countryside, is the northern editor of The Guardian and is a prolific blogger on the subject of moths…

As an increasingly ancient journalist, I’ve lived through many stories of impending doom based on supposedly scientific data. I like to recall them as, glass of wine or beer in hand, I potter out in the evening to set my moth trap.

Poisonous burgers, swine flu, GM crop mayhem and of course climate change and global warming. Something in all of them, of course, but how much more we would learn, and how much more calmly, if reporters and editors were all issued with a Robinson moth trap.

Robinson Moth TrapNamed after a moth-absorbed couple (an excellent phenomenon in a world still too dominated by men), this is a sturdy plastic bowl with a transparent cowl and an incredibly powerful light called a mercury vapour bulb. The lamp is the lure, although no one is entirely sure whether moths are attracted to light or – more likely but still not certain – disorientated and drawn in like rebel starfighters collared by Darth Vader.

The fact that even the reason for the Robinsons’ success remains to be nailed is both the starting, and finishing, point for a discussion about what moths can teach us about life. After only a few evenings (and I have trapped for three years now, since the wonderful birthday when my wife Penny gave me this vast object wrapped in cheery paper), you realise how much we still have to discover about, well, pretty much everything.

Moths are only one of many teachers of this lesson. I remember reading in The Economist as a student a fascinating article on the failure of physicists to understand exactly how, and why, ice skates work. But a small and, in Britain, apparently dull type of creature which comes out only at night, is a particularly revealing candidate for study. Especially when many people are misguidedly terrified of moths stinging them, making a beeline for trouserlegs and skirt hems, or trying to burrow into your ear.

I was at an internationally important nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest in the Black Country the other week. Guess which category of inhabitant was marked in the database: ‘Much work still to be done.’ On holiday in Devon, I saw the unmistakeable bluish glow of a trap, got talking to its owner and found that he had discovered two ‘extinct’ species in one wood. “They were never extinct,” he said. “It was just that nobody had trapped there for years.”

Each hobbyist thus fills a gap and adds to the hugely incomplete picture; and blogging about the moths allows you to raise questions and share puzzles as these come along. Why is blue almost entirely unknown in European moths? Why does one moth have antennae like the most complicated TV aerial ever devised, while a closely related one, or sometimes even the other gender of the same species, has something resembling a tiny walking stick?

Readers speculate, we correspond, serendipity regularly brings unexpected new friends. When I posted about the Heart and Dart moth (above) – almost boringly common in Leeds – I got a warm and excited message in my Comment box from the couple who run Heart and Dart, a shop in New York which sells soap made from tea. En route, you discover an attic-full of established facts: e.g. Britain’s blue tits alone eat some 35 billion caterpillars a year. But much more striking, is how many more gaps there are for observers gradually to fill.

Just now, I am moving my trap around. Tonight I plan its debut on our bedroom balcony (Penny being away with her Mum for a few days). My real ambition, though, is to copy the legendary Professor E.B. ‘Henry’ Ford who persuaded the RAF to allow him to use a light trap 200ft up in a tethered blimp balloon. He was trying to work out whether moths were attracted to the full moon – the stuff of many legends. Needless to say, the scientific jury is still out on that one too.

…As a PS. The Dabbler’s Brit asked me if moths have a political side, and the answer is yes. The annual infestation of Australia’s federal Parliament by the Bogong moth is notorious – but not the moths’ fault. The building in Canberra with its vast illuminations is right on the moths’ migration path. Also there was a collector on the Isle of Wight in the 1940s called Blair who has more British moths named after him than anyone else – Blair’s Mocha, Blair’s Shoulder-knot and Blair’s Wainscot. But I haven’t (yet) been able to prove any link.

Martin’s books include True North (Guardian Books), Wainwright – the Man who Loved the Lakes (BBC Books), Morris Minor, A Mini Adventure and The Coast to Coast Walk (all Aurum Press)
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