[N.B. Unfortunately, not all of the photos in this post are my own, I have asked for permission and credited their origin where I can. I confess I know little about copyright laws etc., but if you find an image on here that is yours and you want me to remove it, please contact me and I will! As always, identifications may not be known or accurate, but I am always willing to be corrected.]

A few months ago I came across a post on Butterfly Conservation‘s Facebook page about their University Moth Challenge run as a joint initiative with A Focus on Nature. The idea is that each university who joins up form a team, then participate in moth trapping/finding events organised by their team to monitor moth species and populations. The aim of the challenge is to get more people interested in moths (a recent YouGov poll for Butterfly Conservation found that a massive 74% of the UK population have some negative opinion of moths!), to encourage more biological recording in universities and give people recording and identification skills and contacts between universities and the National Moth Recording Scheme.

The challenge runs from 1st April to 31st July 2019 and there are prizes for the highest numer of participants in a single event, highest number of events held, highest number of individual species identified, and highest number of moths found.

As well as being a fun challenge, it’s important because there has been a massive decline of moths in the UK over that last 40 years, with three species going extinct since 2000, and in 2013 the State of Britain’s Larger Moths Report found that two thirds of our moths had declined, so the challenge hopes to ‘challenge’ people’s negative feelings towards moths, teach people more about them, collect more data to quantify the decline further and monitor it in future, and hopefully encourage more people to consider moth conservation.

At the start of this I hardly knew anything about moths, by which I mean I could identify some species but I knew nothing in-depth about them, so despite my misgivings about the challenge (which I will go into later), I decided at the very least this would be an opportunity to fill in some gaps and learn some more.

About Moths

Moths are generally split into two groups: macro-moths, which tend to be larger and more well-known, and micro-moths. Most field guides tend to only cover macro-moths and there are approximately 800 macro-moth species in Great Britain and Ireland, while there are approximately 1600 species of micro-moths (and only 60 butterfly species!). Moths are often touted as being “BBJs” (boring brown jobs), and therefore not as pretty or interesting as butterflies, and because they tend to be thought of as solely nocturnal species, people don’t consider them to be pollinators or that they have much other importance beyond being pests…

*Cracks fingers*

… hopefully I can show you how these opinions aren’t entirely accurate!

Boring Brown Jobs?

Deilephila elpenor, the elephant hawk moth ( © Joe Myers, used with permission)
Deilephila elpenor, the elephant hawk moth ( © Anona Potts, used with permission)
Mimas tiliae, the lime hawk-moth (© Jason Thompson, used with permission)
Eyed Hawkmoth Smerinthus ocellatus (© Joe Myers, used with permission)
Sphinx ligustri, the privet hawk moth caterpillar (© Tina Clarke, used with permission)
Hummingbird Hawk Moth Macroglossum stellatarum ( © IronChris)
Bedstraw Hawk Moth Hyles gallii ( © Kevin Keaves Eaves, used with permission)

To be fair though, there are a lot of “brown jobs” too, but none that I would call “boring”!

Colourful caterpillars!

Hopefully the above images show you that moths are beautiful! This is just a tiny selection of moth images that I have gathered (personally and that were sent to me when I begged for images to be used in this post) Obviously, though, they are all macro-moths, and not micro-moths, some of which are below. I confess: while there are far more micro-moths in the UK, I have not included many photos of them. Why could this be? Well, in part it is because this particular post has already taken a lot more time than I had anticipated! It is also in part because I know far, far less about micro-moths than macro-moths (and even then I don’t know as much about macro-moths as I would like!). If you know any great micro-moth species, or information about them, why not drop a comment below?

[Edit: It turns out only one of the below is actually a micro-moth… oops!]

What else about moths? They are not all nocturnal, some prefer to fly during the day. Adults of certain species lack the ability to feed, and some adult females even lack wings entirely. The evolution of the colouration of the peppered moth during industrialisation is a great way to illustrate the theory of natural selection! Moths are also a very important food source for many other animals, including birds and bats, and there is currently an evolutionary arms race between bats and moths that has been going on for as long as they have existed! In fact, there are so many different facts and interesting information about moths that it would fill many, many books!

Back to the challenge!

And what a challenge it has been, though not really in the way I had intended it to be! First came the realisation that I didn’t know a thing about moths… “that’s okay,” I thought, “I can use this as a learning opportunity!” And that I have, my library at home has expanded as a result and I have definitely learned a fair bit, obviously I still have a lot more to learn though!

Image my own.

It’s also been a great way to network; when I found myself volunteering on Butterfly Conservation’s table at the recent Festival of Nature it was great to meet the minds behind the University Moth Challenge! It’s helped me connect with a few lecturers I hadn’t met before who have an interest in moths, and I cannot thank the technicians in the field studies room enough for all their time and patience with the million emails, questions and equipment loans! I’ve met people from Feed Bristol and hope that will go further in future too with other things.

The second challenge was the realisation that it started in the month before the exams, when I should be revising, and while I had hoped to pull off a few events in this time period as a way to have a break in between revision, it didn’t really work like that and little to nothing got done. The following month, exam month, was more of the same – exams, sleeping and panic revision.

Finally exams were out of the way and June looked clear, “wonderfull!” I thought, “Now I can crack on with earnest!”… after one successful trapping event at Feed Bristol I had a failed event at UWE (sugar trapping, where it was cold, wet and not a single person came – let alone a moth) and I went home feeling despondent. Obviously, the weather didn’t improve for some weeks, and other life things got in the way, meaning that tonight is the first night I’ve been able to put the moth trap out in preparation for another event tomorrow… It remains to be seen whether anyone will join me for this event though!

The bottom line is, it hasn’t gone smoothly, in fact, I’m disapppointed in how it has gone so far and I highly doubt that UWE’s Team Count Mothula will be winning any prizes this year. I confess that I’m a little sad it has basically just been me doing this, it would have been a lot easier if there were other people to co-ordinate with… maybe that’s a lack of interest in moths, or perhaps exams or even the fact that many students leave Bristol and go home after the exams, I don’t know.Will I do it again next year though?

Yes. Yes I will!I will still have the knowledge I’ve learned this year, and can expand on it next year. I’ll be able to draw on the failures of this year to make it better, and have much more time to plan and rope in more people. I intend to get my own moth trap, so I am not limited by equipment availability and less limited by timing moth trap loans with the weather… so, yes – It’s been disappointing this year, but still fun and can only be better next year!

Still, we still have until the end of July to get something done!

Published by StudentEcologistBristol

I'm a mature student studying Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science BSc (Hons) at the University of the West of England.

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