February 2011 – What’s in a name? By RSPB volunteer, Eleanor Reast

Moths. They’re just grey, drab things that eat your clothes, right?

It’s true that some of them can only be described as drab and grey, and this is reflected in their names: Chimney Sweeper, Northern Drab, Plain Clay and Dingy Mocha. They don’t exactly inspire one to buy a moth trap and find out more. A closer look, however, reveals others so exquisite that you don’t believe they exist until you see one in the flesh.

Many are named for obvious aesthetic reasons: the Blood Vein has a characteristic red vein-like line running across its wings, the Spectacle when viewed head on appears to be wearing goggles; and the Silver Y, Figure of Eighty, and Dog’s Tooth all reflect diagnostic markings or patterns on the wings. The terrifyingly named Death’s Head Hawkmoth has the image of a human skull on its back and was used on the posters of the horror film Silence of the Lambs. Often it is not until you see the larvae that the names become clear – Tussock moths have tufts of lengthy bristles protruding from their backs, and the Lobster resembles, you guessed it, a lobster. The moth that first captures most people’s attention is the Elephant Hawkmoth. It is large, furry, and gaudy pink in colour, and so named because the caterpillar resembles an elephant’s trunk.

Sometimes it is the behaviour that gives the moth its name. The caterpillar of the Goat moth exudes a disgusting smell similar to that of a billy goat, while the male of the Ghost moth performs an eerie mating dance to attract the female, and the Drinker was named after the adult’s habit of lapping up dew from plants. Some are simply named after the adult’s dominant colour, such as the Cream-Bordered Green Pea, Ruby Tiger, Speckled Yellow and Burnished Brass. Some, like the Thyme Pug, Pine Beauty, Turnip moth, Sycamore and Cabbage moth, betray their host’s food plant.

My favourites are those that evoke a different era, a romantic age of poetry and high culture, as in the True Lover’s Knot, Maiden’s Blush, Feathered Gothic, Green-Brindled Crescent and Scarce Vapourer. Footman moths are so named because of their stiff, erect shape similar to the footmen on duty in Georgian times. Then there are those that without a little explaining seem ridiculous. The Lettuce Shark has an elongated streamlined appearance similar to a shark and this particular species feeds on lettuce. Mother Shipton depicts on each wing the hideous crooked nose and warty chin of the Yorkshire soothsayer of that name from the 16th century.

Then there are some that make you wonder if they just ran out of ideas; as with for example the Unknown, the Uncertain and the Suspected.

If you are keen to learn more about moths then you may wish to buy, or even make your own moth trap. Electrical components can be bought for under £100, whilst traps ready to go vary between approximately £150 and £400 depending on design. The simplest and cheapest traps use low wattage actinic bulbs, whereas the more expensive ones use far brighter, mercury vapour bulbs that attract many more moths. One of the best books to help identify moths is the ‘Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Waring, Townsend and Lewington. There are also several very good web sites devoted to moths – www.ukmoths.org.uk being particularly helpful. Atropos (www.atropos.info) is the society for those with an interest in moths, butterflies and dragonflies. Subscribers receive its journal three times a year which is packed with very useful information for beginner and experienced lepidopterist alike.

So the next time you see a moth take more care to study its appearance, you might be surprised by what is lurking behind those curtains.

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