Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Moths are just as worthy of our wonder as butterflies


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The Independent Online

Our human prejudices often lead us astray in looking at the natural world. For example, we so love our butterflies that we tend to think butterflies come first, and moths are merely an afterthought. But actually, it's the other way round.

The great insect class of Lepidoptera, those with scale-covered wings, is made up overwhelmingly of moths, nearly 200,000 named species across the world, with many thousands more yet to be named. By contrast, there are only about 18,000 named species of butterflies (3,500 of them just in Colombia, by the way), for butterflies constitute a mere branch, halfway down, of the moth evolutionary tree. Butterflies could roughly be described as a bunch of moths which evolved bright colours for mutual recognition, as they had begun to specialise in flying during the day.

The fact that the great majority of moths are active only at night means they are largely unfamiliar to most people, and even regarded as somewhat sinister, but in fact, as moth lovers know, they can be every bit as arresting as their butterfly relations. Many are stunningly beautiful, such as the Jersey tiger or the eyed hawkmoth, or even the legendary Clifden nonpareil, the very rare species which shows on its underwings a sumptuous colour found almost nowhere else in the moth world – lilac blue.

Once moth enthusiasm takes hold, you end up buying a light trap, which you operate at night and which is the only way to see most moths properly, and you are regarded by your family and friends as a tad on the obsessive side, as you have 868 British species of larger moths to familiarise yourself with, compared with only 58 British butterflies.

But that is only the larger ones, those which are more or less butterfly-sized. Even the most determined moth obsessives have been daunted, in the past, by the micro moths – the ones the size of your little fingernail, or smaller – as there are 1,600 species of them in Britain. Becoming familiar with them was difficult as the literature on them was widely scattered, often in specialist journals, and relatively expensive, and only about 170 of them have English names, which means there's a lot of Latin to remember.

Now though, the first comprehensive, single-volume illustrated guide to them has just been produced. Clearly, you have to be a moth fan in the first place to want to buy The Field Guide to the Micro-Moths of Great Britain and Ireland (British Wildlife Publishing, £29.95), but even if you're not, and you come across it, and you enjoy the natural world, you will be stunned: here, suddenly revealed, is a truly wonderful variety of colour and form in these diminutive insects.

They range from the brilliant green of the oak tortrix to the pinky-purple with yellow spots of the mint moth, from the amazing antennae of the longhorns – six times the length of their bodies – to the weirdly bisected wings of the plume moths.

There are a tiny number of pests here too, including the common clothes moth, Tineola bisselliela (currently infesting the McCarthy household), and the horse-chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella, the wee beastie from the Balkans which got here on long-distance lorries a decade ago and now turns our conker trees brown in July. But the overwhelming majority are harmless and utterly fascinating.

The authors, Phil Sterling, who is ecological adviser to Dorset County Council, and Mark Parsons, in charge of moths at the charity Butterfly Conservation, have described 1,033 of them, in an entomological labour of Hercules; and Richard Lewington, Europe's best butterfly painter, has painted every one.

It's a whole new section of the teeming life out there that's been brought into our ken. Leafing through the pages of illustrations, looking at a thousand different small creatures, so varied and specialised, you are lost in wonder at the power of evolution. I think it's magnificent.

Cuckoo in wine country

An update on the progress of Indy, The Independent's adopted cuckoo being tracked on his migratory journey back to Africa by the British Trust for Ornithology. Indy has been on something of a French wine tour: he has passed through Champagne, and is now residing in Burgundy, just down the road from Beaune, one of the great wine towns of the world. Next stop the Rhone?;