I wouldn’t ever claim that moths are the most popular form of wildlife in our gardens but they are essential to the health of the overall ecosystem, providing food for many of the birds we enjoy watching. Despite the ambivalence many people have towards moths, it is impossible to deny that many of them are hugely impressive creatures well worth a closer look.
The difference between moths and butterflies
Moths are very closely related to butterflies. They are both found in the same Order which is known as ‘Lepidoptera’. There is no scientific distinction between moths and butterflies but a few general rules apply in most cases. Butterflies always fly by day; they are usually brightly coloured; all British butterflies have club-shaped antennae (though these are not always easy to see) and most hold their wings vertically behind their backs when at rest (except when basking). Moths usually fly by night (though some types such as burnet, tiger and the cinnabar moths fly by day); many are deemed to be less colourful (but there are a huge number of exceptions to this rule); their antennae are rarely clubbed (but do come in a wonderful range of shapes and sizes) and they tend to hold their wings either flat or in a roof shape over their bodies.
The life cycle of a moth is similar to that of a butterfly. In general the caterpillar, more often called a larva when referring to moths, emerges from an egg and feeds on the leaves of its host plant. It grows by shedding its skin, a process which it may undertake about four times before being large enough to pupate. The process of pupation begins when the larva hides itself in leaf litter, underground or in a specially-made cocoon. The skin of the larva hardens and inside the pupa the adult moth slowly develops. Eventually the moth emerges and dispersal can take place.
Pairs find each other for mating using scent, this is why many male moths have elaborately shaped antennae and why they do not need to be brightly coloured. Females can lay many hundreds of eggs, often venturing further a-field as their load decreases. Many moth species will gain sustenance by drinking nectar from flowers using a proboscis, just like a butterfly, but some do not feed at all, they have non-functional mouth parts and live only on stores of energy created when in its larval form.
There are about 2500 different species of moths resident in Britain. Of these about 1600 are micro-moths (small ones) and about 900 are macro-moths (larger varieties), the biggest of which is the privet hawkmoth with a wing span of up to 12 centimetres (nearly five inches).
The privet hawkmoth
The privet hawkmoth can be seen on the wing during June and July most commonly across the southern half of Britain. It can be attracted to lights so look out for it around security lights, for example.
As its name suggests, the larva of the privet hawkmoth feeds on the leaves of privet which makes this a species regularly seen in gardens.
The larva will also feed on ash, lilac and guelder rose. The adult moth (seen in the photo) is quite distinctive with its pink- and black-banded hindwings, but the large green larvae with their diagonal white and pink lines and pointed tail are also quite noticeable.
To encourage more moths into your garden it is a good idea to grow some nectar plants which release scent at night, species such as night-scented stock, marjoram and jasmine are good examples. Secondly create piles of leaf litter, twigs and branches in sheltered parts of the garden where caterpillars could pupate. Finally provide as great a diversity of plants and shrubs as possible to provide leaves for larvae to feed on, native species are best.