Speckled Footman and Maiden’s Blush

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

Last year, I attempted to pass through security in an American airport carrying a small black box, containing eight batteries and a visible circuit board. If the switch was flipped, the display counted down in red flashing numbers. Unsuprisingly, the officer in Salt Lake City pulled it out of my hand baggage.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s to attract moths,’ I said; then, thinking this sounded feeble, added rather grandly, ‘I’m a lepidopterist.’

‘Say that again.’

So I did, and a huge grin lit up the face of my interrogator. ‘Hey, y’all,’ he called out to his colleagues. ‘C’mon on over, listen to this… Say it again.’

I passed on with my Goodden Gemlight, heading for the mountains of Montana, leaving behind a desk of mirthful security staff, all chuckling and repeating to each other ‘Lepidopterist… lepidopterist… lepidopterist….’

The love of moths is apt to baffle the uninitiated. The term ‘lepidopterist’ perplexes even those with a classical education: it comes from the Greek for ‘scaly+wing’, which sounds as if we are Magizoologists, studying Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But looking closely at moths — which one needs to do to realise their extraordinary beauty — one can see that the powdery coating on their wings, which is so easily damaged by a passing touch, is made up of myriads of minuscule scales. These are pigmented just brown or black: the colours red, blue and yellow are created by the microstructures of each scale, which are natural photonic crystals. Like the shifting colours of an opal, vivid hues are formed by the scattering of light. Some moths are actually iridescent; all, when freshly hatched, have a fragile, silky, shimmering beauty. Fantastic, indeed.

There are more than 2,500 species of moth in Britain. Only a couple of these will, as larvae, eat your cashmere jersey. (These are members of the Tineidae family, which runs to odd tastes in food: one cousin feeds on fox-excrement, while another eats only the mould found in wine cellars.) Butterflies, which evolved as a discrete group relatively late, are much less numerous. There are only 59 breeding species of butterfly in Britain.

It is the sheer number and diversity of species that makes the study of moths so attractive; but, of course, this is also initially daunting. Moths are traditionally divided into ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ moths, which is largely a matter of convenience. Most of the more primitive forms of moth are smaller than the more highly developed moths, and are called ‘micros’, though there are some exceptions. A few very primitive families — such as the swifts, which have not developed a functioning proboscis, and the family of the goat moth (named because its caterpillar smells ‘goaty’) — are so large that they are always given honorary ‘macro’ status.

This Field Guide is the guide to the easier, larger ‘macro’ moths of Britain. Beginners will find 896 species quite enough to be getting on with; addicts will add the companion volume by Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons, covering the micro moths. Both guides are quite simply the best in the field.

When I started, as a child, my guide books were those of Richard South, and, later, Bernard Skinner. These showed the moths as they were in death, pinned in a cabinet and spreadeagled to show both forewings and underwings. Waring and Townsend, brilliantly, show the moths as they are in life, in their natural resting postures, just as you will find them sitting on your windowpane. I sometimes feel, like an old-fashioned surgeon who has perfected the skill of removing a leg without anaesthetic, that modern practitioners have it rather easy.

Beginners, however, might make the mistake of going further, and imagining that a photographic guide to identifying moths must be even better, because even more life-like. This is not the case. Moth identification depends upon minute comparisons of differences: if you want to distinguish between very similar species, such as Dusky Brocade, Large Nutmeg, Confused, Crescent Striped and White Colon, it helps to have all the moths drawn in identical postures, and exactly to scale. It helps even more to have them drawn by Richard Lewington. Each illustration is a work of genius: the diagnostic distinguishing features are subtly enhanced, so that each drawing is like a platonic distillation of the moth. And the accompanying text points out crucial differences, clearly, with minimal use of technical terminology. (Traditional descriptions have the arcane impenetrability of heraldry: ‘orbicular and claviform stigmata variably expressed…’)

If you do not have a moth book, this is the one to get. If, however, you already possess one of the earlier versions, is it worth adding this, the third edition?

If, like me, you possess the first edition of Waring and Townsend and use it continually, you will probably need it. The first edition, annoyingly, had the coloured plates scattered throughout the text, so they were difficult to find. And then the page numbers referring back to the text were not specific to each moth, but covered all the moths in that plate (‘pages 116–121’). This meant that one spent a lot of time flipping about in the book, which is why my first edition is disintegrating.

This was rectified in the second edition. There are, however, some important changes which will encourage even those who possess the improved second edition to upgrade to the third.

One, of course, is the inclusion of new species. There are some new immigrants illustrated, such as the Banded Pine Carpet, the Black-spotted Chestnut, the Boathouse Gem and the Chevron Snout. Some which were merely noted in the second edition are now upgraded to illustrations, such as the African and the Stranger. A few, such as the Surreptitious Palm-borer, are downgraded: the rough-and-ready rule for inclusion is that the moths must either breed in this country or, if an immigrant, have blown in from the Continent. Adventive species, hitching a ride on imported plants or produce, are not counted on the British list — unless, like the Cypress Carpet or the Carnation Tortrix, they establish colonies after jumping ship, and become naturalised.

One major change in the third edition is the introduction of distribution maps. These are fascinating, and useful, though of course moths can stray outside their usual range. The decision has been taken not to mark by colour which records are of breeding colonies, and which passing immigrants — which makes the map of, say, the Rannoch Looper look strange: it consistently breeds only in parts of Scotland, but waves of immigrants from the Continent occasionally turn up in the south-east of England.

One can, however, see why this decision was taken. It is difficult to establish the breeding status of moths; and difficult, too, to keep up with changes. The magnificent Clifden Nonpareil or Blue Underwing, once a resident and the ultimate prize for Victorian collectors, faced extinction as a breeding species in Britain. In my first edition Field Guide, it is labelled ‘immigrant; transitory resident’. Now there are at least four colonies breeding and thriving in woods near me in Sussex.

The biggest change of all in this third edition is one of taxonomy — the classification of the families of moth. Families share characteristics, such as wing shape, resting posture, thickness or hairiness of the body; and even in Montana it was possible to recognise the families of many of the new moths I encountered. The One-eyed Sphinx was obviously a relation of our Eyed Hawkmoth; the Horned Spanworm akin to our Bordered Beauty (which is one of the Geometridae, sub-family Ennominae). The Latin names are universal, and make finding one’s way around foreign identification websites easy.

On the other hand, these Latin names keep changing. In a Victorian collection of moths, the faded specimens have familiar English names, but the Latin ones will be different. Linnaeus categorised a vast family, Phalaenae, which is now obsolete, split and renamed. As DNA studies refine our understanding of evolutionary relationships, new groupings keep emerging. There is a whole family in this third edition, the Erebidae, which has never before been recognised in a British guide. It combines some rather disparate-looking sub-families from the Noctuidae — the tussocks, tigers, footman moths, snouts, fan-foots, marbleds, blacknecks and underwings.

This rearrangement will not be too dismaying to users, however, since it is now easy to flip through the section of illustrations in search of a family. And in practice it will be useful to be brought in line with continental developments, since foreign websites can determine whether an odd-looking specimen is actually an exciting immigrant.

As long as we have the common English names, unaltered for hundreds of years, I will not repine at these necessary changes. How evocative these names are: Maiden’s Blush, Beautiful Golden Y, Speckled Footman, Grass Emerald, Neglected Rustic, Silky Wainscot, Setaceous Hebrew Character (a moth obviously named by a country clergyman — like the Quaker, the Nonconformist, the Conformist and the Gothic). One can feel across the centuries the excited wonder of the enthusiast who named the Merveille du Jour — still marvellous, intricately patterned with glistening silver and black and peppermint green. And one can sense the frustration of those who named the Suspected, the Uncertain, and the Confused. Poor souls, they did not have Waring and Townsend to hand.

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