A novel recreation readers may enjoy in the new year is the pursuit of moths. Not the physical pursuit— it wouldn’t be sensible to go rushing about in the dark with a butterfly net — but the semi-sedentary cataloguing of the creatures.
It’s not difficult to set up a moth trap in the back garden, and those of towns and cities are as likely as those in the country to attract common and exotic varieties.
Mornings could be full of surprises, creatures as rare to the Irish lepidoptera list as the Penny Black to philately.
Unlike the case with flowers or birds, you simply provide an enticement — a bright light — and your ‘collection’ comes to you. Discovering a rare and/or stunningly beautiful species in the trap would be an insight into the creatures of one’s own back yard after the hours of darkness.
Powerful mercury vapour (MV) rigs can be bought on the internet. While a EU directive now prohibits their manufacture, pre 2215-manufactured stock is still legally offered for sale.
However, an interesting article by Cian Merne in this quarter’s Sherkin Comment, published by Sherkin Island Marine Station and always a worthwhile read, points out, a device with the glare of a klieg-light might not be popular with neighbours.
“An actinic light is a much better option,” advises Cian. “I have found that a 15W [actinic] lamp is perfect for the average garden.”
Actinic light matches the eye sensitivity of various insects and is used in electronic fly killers. Our object in trapping moths is simply to attract them, view them, photograph them, identify them and return them to nature in a suitable patch of scrub where they’ll be safe from robins and flycatchers and fly again in the mothy dark of the following night.
(The robins will not, of course, have orange breasts, not red. In the 15th century, it became popular to give human names to familiar species, oranges were unknown in English. The result was a misnomer which has stood the test of time. There was a word for yellow-red but it sounded more like a gurgle, and wasn’t nearly cute enough to affix to a garden robin.)
Meanwhile, actinic light replicates sunlight and initiates reactions like photosynthesis. Actinic lamps are used in saltwater reef aquariums where living seaweeds, corals and sponges survive and grow in simulated underwater sunlight.
These lights can be bought from aquarium shops or moth-light suppliers found on the internet. Some years ago, I met Philip Strickland, an amateur moth observer, exploring the moth life of West Cork, and especially of Ummera, an old house on the River Argideen near Timoleague.
Ummera has special significance for all involved in the nocturnal world of moths. It was here, in the 1930s, that the notable moth-trapper and lepidopterist, Lt Colonel Charles Donovan and his mothy sisters lived and trapped some of the rarest species ever recorded in the British and Irish Isles.
The following evening, Philip set a trap in our jungle garden, replete with beech, ash, sycamore, myrtle, alder, holly, hawthorn, spruce, leylandii and eucalyptus, fuchsia, laburnum, escalonia, forsythia, pheasant berry, buddleia, briar, and others I’ve forgotten. A good habitat, he said.
The trap was a simple box like a squat table lamp with a powerful bulb and a wide base with apertures into which the moths could fly and roost amongst cardboard egg cartons in the darkness below.
We ran an extension lead to the device, but a car battery could also be used. In the morning, moths were roosting in every niche of the egg boxes, and some on the outside of the box.
Pre-release, for later identification, Philip photographed those species that he hadn’t photographed before. Thirty three species of macro-moths and dozens of species of micro moth had visited our garden; it was a veritable moth zoo.
I thought this was amazing, and surely rare. Not so, he said; it was about average for July, but moths fly all year round.
Amongst them were the exotically named Flame Shoulder, Burnished Brass, and Flounced Rustic, beautiful denizens of our night-time gardens, I’d never before seen. We have 550 species of macro moth in Ireland and 1,000 micro moth species, with more of both discovered every year.
A garden trap can be bought for €150, or build your own (see internet and www.mothsireland.com) Come springtime, I’ll try building a DIY rig. A field guide to moths and a camera are essential.
Pinioning the unfortunate creatures to a board, as our worthy Victorians did, is no longer required. An intriguing book of photos entitled My Moths could be made, (but might be viewed with suspicion by Dublin wives, I suppose...)