Helen Chambers and Stephen Rutt discover the moths of Essex at a trapping event held by Wivenhoe Watching Wildlife. Both photos are of a cream-spot tiger moth, © Stephen Rutt.
The Virgin Moth-er
The 10pm start allowed a pub visit first, and we arrived somewhat later to the WWW National Moth Night event in St Mary’s churchyard, Wivenhoe. We had spoken to the irrepressible Greg, Chris and Jude earlier, as they set up the traps, and when we got back, they were in full moth-catching flow, the men wearing what can only be described as modern versions of miners’ headlamps. They moved from trap to trap, explaining and identifying to an interested group. In fact, Greg, with butterfly net and Indiana Jones-style hat, seemed like some Victorian explorer setting off into undiscovered realms. Moths are an undiscovered realm to me. In my ignorance, I considered most moths small, brown, and to have a foolish fascination with my bedside lamp. I’m the ignorant one, of course, as Butterfly Conservation thinks there are around 2,500 different species of moth in England.
The actual traps, despite sounding fearsome, are humane and Heath-Robinson in design. A UVA light (in fact, different traps had different specifications of light in order to attract the largest variety of moths) is fixed in the centre of a box, with two panes of glass sloping downwards leaving a gap in the middle. Below the glass sheets, in true Blue Peter style, are upturned egg boxes, which provide the trapped moths somewhere to shelter overnight, before being examined, identified and released the next morning. Attracted by the light, some moths trap themselves and others are caught in plastic containers allowing the opportunity for closer examination.
We began by appreciating the subtleties of moth-markings with a marbled beauty, which indeed it was. All moths’ wings are covered with scales and hairs, and the markings on a ‘fresh’ moth will be clearer and more distinct than on an older one. The marbled beauty is an attractive butterfly- shaped moth, and I learned that the distinction between moths and butterflies is arbitrary and resulted from the Victorian cleric-naturalist’s preference for studying the latter. It’s a preference I shared, until now. Certainly, moths are as reluctant as butterflies to remain still to allow easy identification. Moths fall into ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ definitions, as well as moth-traps, and I am astounded by the delicate beauty of some varieties. Many still only have Latin names; it is thought that many more have yet to be identified. Some moths appear to be shaped like miniature white butterflies, some are more like skippers and another group are altogether more reminiscent of a fly.
This last group was how I imagined all moths would look: crumpled brown leaf shape with large, hairy heads and wings folding back onto their bodies. I was excited to see a cream-spot tiger, which, I was thrilled to learn, manages to scramble the sonar messages of bats to evade capture, quite apart from displaying ferocious red markings. It has a bulbous looking eyes like a fly (moths see though hexagonal lenses in the same way many insects do) and, along with all moths, can see UV rays invisible to humans.
I leave Greg, Chris and Jude to another hour of moth trapping, and the morning ‘opening’ of the traps. In the few days since ‘Moth Night’, I have noticed day-flying moths in my garden. Butterfly Conservation state that there are more day-flying moths than butterflies. I am also investigating those brown bedroom visitors. In fact (with apologies to Greg for stealing his joke) I am no longer ‘the Virgin Moth-er’.
Helen Chambers holds an MA Creative Writing from the University of Essex. She recently won the Felixstowe Literary Festival Short Story Competition, and in 2014 the Hysteria Flash Fiction Award. She took ‘The Wild East’ (an option from the MA in Wild Writing) as one of her modules, and is always more pleasant to know once she has spent time outdoors. She also enjoys listening to, and writing, radio drama. Her short play, Revolution, was performed at the University of Essex Homecoming Weekend in 2014. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everybody expected me to watch the football. I went mothing instead.
I arrived late. Dusk had set, small brown moths were kicked up from the grass by my footfall. The bright lights and boxes of the traps were already set up and shining off the flinty church wall. I arrived late to an appreciation of moths. I confess, for much of my life spent interested in nature, I regarded them as small brown things: food, basically, for the small brown birds I find captivating. That seemed logical at the time. Times change. Thoughts change.
Moths are a deception. The genre boundary between them and the butterflies is arbitrary and unscientific. The distinction between the macro moths and the micro moths is likewise – grouped by what people were interested in at the time, and that distinction is something that can’t quite be shaken off, even now. Mothing is a deception. The bright lights confuse their navigation. They’re supposed to fly by the position of the moon. Our man-made moons mess with this. They try to keep a constant position to the light until they land in the trap, and spend a night of rest tucked away in an egg box.
Moths are a deception. When the night is done the traps are turned off, the moths are removed from the boxes and placed in clear plastic pots for viewing. We trapped two marbled browns – different in shade and tone from each other, but sharing the same inscrutable markings. They looked like flakes of bark, but delicately, attractively so. For the greater bulk of their population, passing themselves off as bark must work. Their pretence is a design for life. We unearthed a light emerald, a moth that pretends at being green through the way light reflects of the alignment of their scales. An iron prominent: chunky, fluffy and metallic grey, with rusty markings running across its wings. A common swift: a small, primitive and misnamed moth. The suggestion of speed and ability at flight was not matched by the reality, as it flapped frantically away, careering through the air into the long grass, where it would spray eggs and hope that one of them hatched on the correct foodplant for its caterpillar.
We had hoped for a hawkmoth. We were disappointed. What we trapped instead was a tiger. Glistening black and spotted cream forewings cloaked its dazzle camouflage of tiger orange and black blotches and blood red fluffy body. A cream-spot tiger moth: as bright and beguiling as any butterfly. The star of the show. Chris talked about it, engagingly, to 25 locals, young and old, who had come to see what lurks in the churchyard at night. They all took turns to hold the pot, and coo over it. And hopefully to spread the word. Aldo Leopold writes that ‘we grieve only for what we know’ (p.48). It is knowledge and experience that makes us care and want to conserve things: hopefully Wivenhoe had gained a new set of people, ready to care and conserve and love the often too unappreciated moths of the neighbourhood.
Stephen Rutt is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex. East Anglian by upbringing, Stephen has spent six months in Orkney, been tick-bitten in a Hungarian marsh and floated in a boat in the mid-Atlantic in search of birds. As well as an obsession with winged things, Stephen has a BA in English from Stirling, and has had writing published in Earthlines, The Harrier and the East Anglian Daily Times. He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.