UK Pyralidae and Crambidae…much more than little brown moths!| Digital Collection Programme  

A guest blog by Nicola Lowndes

Thistle ermine
This beautiful thistle ermine (Myelois circumvoluta) can be spotted during the day on thistles in gardens and parklands across Southern Britain.

The digitisation team are currently imaging the Museum’s collections of British and Irish Pyralidae (snout moths) and Crambidae (grass moths). The team were sure this would be one of their less exciting projects as at first glance the moths looked small and brown. However, the team were pleasantly surprised to find many interesting and beautiful species in these collections, including the thistle ermine.

In 2013, the Museum started a pilot project to digitise half a million British and Irish Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). To digitise, we photograph each specimen; transcribe label data such as the collection location, collector and date of collection; and release this information onto the Museum’s Data Portal. This project was completed in 2017 and developed the digitisation workflow that we are using to digitise the Pyralidae and Crambidae moths.

While working on these collections the digitisation team have discovered a huge diversity of species, including numerous beautiful and distinctive moths to watch out for over the summer.

UK Pyralidae and Crambidae

There are so many species of moths that scientists often split them into two groups, the larger (or macro) moths and the smaller (or micro) moths. There are approximately 1,600 species of micro moth in Britain and Ireland compared to 900 macro moths. Mirco moths are usually smaller in size with a wingspan less than 20mm.

The Pyralidae and Crambidae are families of micro moth within the superfamily Pyraloidea. There are 121 species of Crambidae and 77 species of Pyralidae in Britain and Ireland. These numbers are constantly in flux as new species colonise from warmer climates or accidental import, while others are lost due to natural habitat degradation or loss.

Both families have species associated with a diverse range of habitats from grassland, heathland and woodland, to wetlands, and even some species with aquatic or sub-aquatic larvae. These moths and their caterpillars are important pollinators and provide food for a variety of wildlife. A small number of Pyraloidea are pests of stored products e.g. the mediterranean flour moth (Ephestia kuehniella) which can be a pest in flour mills and bakeries because as the larvae feeds on flour.

Despite being classed as micro moths, some species such as the mother of pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis) are actually larger than some Macro-moths. However, the majority of this collection is very small and delicate. In terms of digitisation this means having to spend extra time and care handling the specimens, which can be extremely fragile.

2 Meditteranean Flour Moth
Mediterranean flour moth (Ephestia kuehniella) collected from London in 1902

Digitising micro moths

The Digitisation team have completed digitising the British and Irish Pyralidae comprising approximately 20,000 specimens which will shortly be available on the Data Portal. The team are currently working through the Crambidae collections.

These micro moth collections date from 1819 until the 1980s. Each species can have many drawers associated with it and one drawer can contain around 300 individuals of a species. Due to the historical and geographical breadth of the collection, it is an important resource for scientists. Moths and butterflies are considered to be indicator species as they are particularly sensitive to environmental change, for instance larvae may depend on a particular plant for food at a particular stage of their life cycle. This makes them an ideal group for scientists to understand the impact of climate change or land use change. Using data from the digitised butterfly collections and historical temperature data researchers have been able to show that butterflies are emerging earlier due to rising temperatures.  

Unexpected Beauty

At first, the Pyralids and Crambids were not seen to be as charismatic as some of the other species digitised, such as  the birdwing butterflies. However, over the last couple of months the team have discovered a diversity of form, colours and life strategies amongst the British and Irish Pyraloidea. Here is a selection of some favourites so far….

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Mother of pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis) – A large species which is common and widespread across Britain and can be disturbed from its larval food plant Common Nettle by day. Known as the mother of pearl moth due to its iridescence.

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Small magpie (Anania hortulata) – A distinctively marked species which is common across Britain and can be disturbed by day from its larval food plant common nettle. The Museum specimen was collected from Tring, so it is definitely a species to look out for if you’re attending the Tring BioBlitz at the end of May.

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White-spotted sable moth (Anania funebris) – A day- flying moth which flies with a distinctive spinning motion. This beautiful species has a patchy distribution but can be observed on the flowers and leaves of its food plant, goldenrod

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Mint moth (Pyrausta aurata) – A beautiful purple species with a characteristic orange spot on the forewing. This common species will fly during the day and can often be seen in gardens or parklands on the flowers and leaves of mints, marjorams and thymes on which the larvae feed.

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Brown china mark (Elophila nymphaeata) – Interestingly the larvae of this species are entirely aquatic, feeding on pond weeds. This is a common and widespread species which is easily disturbed from waterside vegetation around canals, ponds, rivers etc.

We encourage you to see if you can find any of these species, many of which are day-flying and easily disturbed from common plants, in your local area this summer. You never know what you might discover – maybe something you’ve never seen before,  or even  a new species to the UK!

Species Identification

If you are out and about and spot a moth or any other insect which you would like to identify there are many great resources available to aid in UK species identification, including:

  • ID Guides, books and keys. The Field Studies Council (FSC) produces a range of fold out ID charts for field identification work. #
  • Biological recording schemes (e.g. The Bees, Wasps and Ants Society (BWARS)) – these collate species observations, and offer a wealth of online information such as species lists, recommended resources and identification help.
  • Facebook is now a great place to seek identification help with many recording schemes having Facebook groups you can join. Here you can upload photos of species and get help in identification from very knowledgeable amateurs and experts.
  • You can also get help with identification from us at the Museum – 2 new beetle species have been identified in the UK over the last few years through these services. You can also contact  @NHM_ID on Twitter.
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A selection of identification resources

Species Recording

Once you have successfully identified your species, you now have valuable scientific information that can contribute to our understanding of biodiversity. By recording your species as a biological observation record, it can be used to update species distributions, help to inform environmental policy and enable wildlife protection and conservation. These records can help in guiding and monitoring sustainable development and can even be used to show changes in population trends related to climate change and changes in land use.

A biological record must contain four key components:

1) WHAT the species is;

2) WHO recorded the species;

3) WHERE the species was seen; and

4) WHEN the species was seen.

There are many places you can record a biological record from biological recording schemes to local and national recording schemes.

 iRecord is a great (free) website for recording. It allows wildlife sightings to be easily collated, checked by experts and made available to support research and decision-making at local and national levels. It also allows you to explore reports and graphs of your own data and even allows you to explore data shared by other users.

Upcoming events

Tring Bioblitz
Museum Identification Trainers surveying with members of the public at the 2018 Tring BioBlitz

If you would like to take part in species identification and recording whilst having a fun day out, there are some BioBlitz events coming up at the Museum. Here you can work with scientists to see what different plants and animals live in the Museum grounds at South Kensington and Tring.

Natural History Museum at Tring BioBlitz: 30th May 2019 10:00 – 16:00

NHM Wildlife Garden BioBlitz: 29-30th June 2019

If you are not London based but would like to get involved in an upcoming BioBlitz then check out the National BioBlitz Network Calendar for events near you.