Staying Alive

/ in Know Your Moths by Marek

In order to offer as much protection to moths during capture and release it is first necessary to understand some of their traits.

Fossil evidence discovered recently reveals that moths have been around for over 200m years which to me suggests that although in decline they do have mechanisms that enable their survival.

Consider the hundreds of Burnet moths seen during the summer months which fly with such impunity.

It appears that this group of moths are extremely poisonous, their bodies containing cyanide derivatives formed initially by the caterpillar from its food plant.

This combined with their colouring warns birds that maybe they are not an easy touch.

Other moths if attacked reveal what appear to be a pair of eyes which in conjunction to a rapid body movement serves to deter a predator from attacking or at least giving the moth sufficient time to make a hasty retreat. A good example of this is the Eyed Hawk Moth, as its name suggests.

Eyed Hawk Moth
An eye for the birds.

Disguise also plays a vital part in survival with a group of tortix moths who have evolved to resemble bird droppings which of course appear distasteful.

Moths are rather clever and diverse in their ability to merge as if unseen on their selected resting places, with the Buff Tip being a prime example in that it appears to be a bit of broken twig and can easily go unnoticed.

Buff Tip moth resting on the end of a pencil
I wonder if they’ll twig

The appearance of Clearwings mimics other insects avoided by birds, an example of which is the Hornet Moth.

Certain moths can distract and confuse bats by making their own sounds which serve to jam the bats sonar location techniques.

I call this group the Bob Marley Moths.

Suffice to say that in their natural environment moths use some quite elaborate methods for staying alive.

Reminds me of an old Bee Gee’s track which has some relevance here.

In years gone by the sheer number of insects would also have been an important factor in their own survival (this subject being touched upon in a previous post).

Another important consideration is that moths when settled cool down which prevents them from taking immediate flight, especially in the winter months.

In preparation for doing so they vibrate their wings rapidly thus warming themselves first.

This does not help when you are trying to take a quality pictures of their markings for identification purposes so trying not to disturb them too much is crucial until of course you want to release them.

The Silver Y is a good example of this as they are also seen, sometimes in great numbers during the day.

When settled they will remain so until they make their own decision to move.

If you disturb them however they immediately begin to warm themselves and take flight.

I remember in 2013 we recorded many Silver Y’s and, already having decent shots for our records, could release these immediately, as the General was on vacation with his troops at this time.

As they were all for the main part on the outside of the trap it was easy for me just to pot them and move them to a nearby location for release.

This I did by placing the potted captive on the small shed alongside the moth house where I then removed the lid leaving the subject preparing for flight on the grey pot cover.

Doing this in succession made a line of grey adjoining covers each with a moth getting ready for take-off.

When I got to about the tenth moth the first had warmed sufficiently to make its exit and it was then that I noticed the similarity to an airports runway which in turn reminded me of the black & white war films I had watched as a child and couldn’t help myself from humming the Dam Busters March.

Silver Y moth, its wings blured from movement where it's readying to take off
Dam Busters

When moths are in full flight they are extremely difficult for birds to catch as not only are they fast, with some Hawk moths reaching speeds of 30 mph, but also fly in an erratic fashion making it practically impossible to track

This coupled with the fact that before a moth or butterfly is eaten by birds the wings need to be removed are they are unpalatable which constitutes some effort.

On hot summers day this is just too much bother for birds for such meagre reward.

I have consciously left one act of subterfuge employed by moths till last as this will be the main subject of my next post where I become a mother of invention.