Five-spot burnet moth

National Moth Week 2021

July 17-25 is National Moth Week 2021. To celebrate, we are revisiting a moth trap from 2020, and finding out more about some of the British moths in our collections with Research Assistant Matt Hayes. Why not join us at the BioBlitz in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 July to find out more about moth surveying and see some of the species that live there. Book tickets for sessions introducing moth trapping and looking at the moths caught overnight.

As a taster of what to expect, watch moth expert Annette Shelford set a moth trap and explore the species it attracted for last year’s Zoology Live! online festival:

British Moths in the Museum with Research Assistant Matt Hayes:

Hummingbird hawk moth feeding
Hummingbird hawk moth (c) Matt Lowe

As a Lepidopterist, I am extremely lucky as I get to spend most of my time at work researching butterflies. However, this group of ‘scaly-winged’ insects also includes moths, which, to my shame, I have spent far less time with. Despite their close relation to butterflies, it seems that many people are less fond of moths or are even frightened of them. This seems extremely unfair, so I wanted to dispel some of the misconceptions we often associate with this group of insects and show why they are equally deserving of our affection.

In the UK, only around 60 of our Lepidopteran species are classed as butterflies, whilst there are more than 2.5 thousand species of moth. Some classic rules of thumb used to distinguish moths from butterflies include moths being more ‘drab’ in colour and coming out at night, whilst butterflies are bright, colourful, and come out during the day. However, for a huge number of moth species this simply isn’t true! There are actually more species of day flying moth in the UK than there are species of butterfly and many of these are beautifully patterned and extremely colourful. Below are some great examples on display in the Zoology Museum galleries, which you can also see on the wing at this time of year.

Specimen of a Cinnabar moth with wings open
Cinnabar moth

This species has a striking red and black colour pattern and can be seen flying in full sunshine throughout most of the summer. At first glance it looks very much like a butterfly, but it is actually a Cinnabar Moth.

Cinnabar moth caterpillar
Cinnanar moth caterpillar

This species also has brightly coloured caterpillars that can be seen in groups feeding on poisonous Ragwort plants. As a result, the caterpillars are themselves poisonous and signal this to predators with their pattern of yellow and black stripes.

Elephant hawk moth
Elephant hawk moth

This next species does come out at night. However, despite flying in complete darkness, it is anything but drab, sporting a bright pink and yellow-green colour scheme. This is an Elephant Hawk Moth and there are two species in the UK, a large and a small, with the large species growing to have a wingspan of up to 6cm. Adults are on the the wing from May to July and will visit fragrant flowers to feed on their nectar. It is important to remember that moths do a lot of night-time pollinating, taking the late shift whilst the day flying insects are resting and safely hunkered away. As we rarely see this behaviour ourselves it is easy to miss, but it gives us another reason why we should appreciate our moths.

Silver Y moth
Silver Y moth

This third species is another moth that can be seen flying during the day. It is not as colourful as the other species mentioned but has a distinctive metallic mark on its forewings, which gives it its name, the Silver Y. The species is also notable for another reason as it is probably our most common migrant moth, with millions crossing the channel every year to reach the UK. Again, this amazing feat will go unnoticed to most casual observers of this moth and highlights how there is much more to these species than may first meet the eye. The Silver Y can be seen in grasslands across the country with peaks in late spring and summer.

Large skipper butterfly at rest
Large skipper (c) Tom Bech CC BY 2.0

There are other rules of thumb that are also used to distinguish butterflies and moths but as before, none of them hold true over all species. For example, moths are said to hold their wings open when at rest, whereas butterflies close them. However, there is a group of butterflies called the golden Skippers, which sit with their wings halfway between open and closed.

Five-spot burnet moth
Five-spot burnet moth (c) John Howlett

Moths also usually have bushy antennae, whereas butterflies have a thin filament with a bulb on the end. However, species like Burnett Moths bridge this gap.

In all, butterflies and moths share far more similarities than differences and you would not be far wrong if you were to say that butterflies are actually just a kind of moth. Therefore, if you are fond of butterflies, you are really already a fan of moths too.

Please see our other posts for more content on moths, including:

how to make your very own moth trap

create a nighttime wildlife mobile

Five-spot burnet moth
Five-spot burnet moth (c) John Howlett

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