Moths do not really need taming, they are already as tame as a tabby cat and are quite willing to crawl all over your hands, arms and face completely unconcerned that you could squash them with one finger. They do however need to be lured, for if moths are anything they are sly, with cryptic camouflage and a tendency to not move from one position all day (oh, and most come out at night, when it is dark), so it is tricky indeed to find one – let alone catch one. So last summer I joined thousands of other nerdy-naturalists (not naturists) across Britain by buying an (expensive) light-trap; these contraptions are pretty much the best way of capturing large numbers of many moth species with little effort. The trap consists of a flat-pack wooden box with sloping internal plastic panels and a cross-bar upon which is mounted the all-important light bulb, so yeah it doesn’t sound like it should be expensive and you could probably build one yourself if you are that way inclined, but I’m lazy. The science-y bit is all in the bulb; it is not from any old desk-lamp but a special large MV-bulb that emits quite a lot of magic moth-attracting rays, or ultraviolet if you want to get technical – which moths seem to find irresistible.
As it turns out, for anyone interested in nature at all (which I am by the way) a moth trap is one of the most exciting and fun things you can own, even if you are not that into moths. The sense of anticipation when you set it up in the evening is nothing compared to the elation and adrenaline you get when you look in the trap in the morning to find a load of drowsy moths sitting on the egg boxes inside. To have caught such a number of nature’s insects with so little effort and all waiting patiently for you to identify them, especially when normally you would never see most of these creatures – is quite something.
If only the same thing could be done with birds my life would be so much easier (kidding of course – it would ruin the fun of the chase), seeing as moths are more difficult to find than birds I think a trap is justified. The challenge of identification is quite fun for someone who is used to identifying fast moving feathered things; to study an animal so close without causing it any harm is great, just looking at its anatomy is wonderful. Half the time though there is not even much of a challenge; despite what you might think a lot of the larger British moths are very distinct with few or zero confusion species – as long as you have a good field guide it is a simple matter of flicking through the illustrations until you see it. For photographers a moth trap gives a great opportunity to take some impressive macro-shots of these beautiful beasts (I take photos to aid ID) and there is often a chance to snap something different; I have had a splendid Cockchafer beetle in my trap, along with wasps and caddisflies – some people have even caught Stag beetles!
This does sound all a bit nerdy, and I won’t pretend that some moths aren’t frustrating to identify (some are impossible), but the beauty of these fluffy insects up-close is breathtaking and worth every penny. Not to mention that if you send in records of what you have caught to the county recorder it is really helpful for conservation and building up distribution maps of these oft overlooked mini-beasts. For the self-proclaimed wildlife-anoraks a British moth species list has great potential; there are well over a thousand species with plenty of chance of continental migrants and rarities (it is essentially like birding in a small box).
Moth trapping may be pricey to get started (unless you make a trap yourself), but once you are up and running with a trap, camera, collecting pots and an ID guide there are few if any costs in the long-term (unlike with birding). For beginners like me who want a good field guide without the daunting micro-moths I would enthusiastically recommend the ‘Field guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Waring, Townsend & Lewington which is nothing short of fabulous. If you need any convincing of the attractiveness of moths you can read my previous post on them here; the way I see it these little guys keep the Earth turning and if nature-nerds don’t keep an eye on them who will?