What do the Common swift, Cockchafer and Caddisfly all have in common? | Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Nicola Lowndes

Adults of these species are attracted to the light of a moth trap of course! In this instance I am not referring to the Common Swift bird (Apus apus) that is seen carrying out impressive aerial displays in summer but instead to the beautiful Common Swift moth (Korscheltellus lupulina).

Moth trapping

I currently work for the Museum’s Digitisation team, this allows me to work on varied projects imaging specimens, transcribing and georeferencing data labels. I have digitised a huge variety of specimens from the very large violin beetles to tiny parasitic wasps, but my favourite specimens to work on are moths. I first found a love of all things moth when I was working at a pub and I would watch them flutter around the porch lights at night.  On discovering that there are approximately 900 species of macro moths and 1,600 species of micro moth in Britain and Ireland I knew I wanted to see more! This led to me buying my own moth trap. There are a few types of moth trap that you can buy; the pros and cons of each type are well described in Butterfly Conservation’s guide to moth recording equipment. It is also possible to make your own moth trap if you fancy giving this a go there are some easy to follow the instructions set out by the Field Studies Council.

I settled on a MV Skinner moth trap as they are collapsible and easy to store. Running a moth trap is very straightforward you position egg cartons around the bottom of the trap for the moths to nestle into, then you plug it in, turn it on and wait to see what flies in! I like to position my moth trap on a white sheet somewhere sheltered as moths will land in and around the moth trap. The important thing to remember is that you will need to get up early the next morning to examine your catch. This is because you don’t want the birds to eat all of moths surrounding the trap and secondly you don’t want the trap to overheat in the sun. The moths will remain pretty docile if you’re up early, so they will stay still long enough to photograph or to observe for easier identification. Don’t touch the moths to avoid damaging them, instead tap them off of egg cartons to observe. Once you have finished identifying your moths it is important to let them go safely either into vegetation or by putting them somewhere in the shade away from predators so they can fly off at dusk. Finally, remember not to run moth traps on consecutive nights to avoid re-capturing the same individuals.

Setting up the moth trap

Other visitors

Moth traps will not only catch moths, but often attract a range of other insect species. Finding other species in the trap provides an opportunity to see species up close that you would never normally see. In my most recent trap I observed thirteen Common Cockchafers and two Caddisflies of the species Limnephilus marmoratus. Caddisflies are important bioindicators, meaning that their presence and the size of their populations can give us an idea about the health of a freshwater habitat. The Digital Collections Programme are in the process of digitising the Museum’s caddisfly collection, for more information about this project check out Digitisation on demand: riverflies and redlists

My catches

I ran my mv moth trap overnight and observed 15 moths of 11 species in total.  These are the five moth species I was most excited to see:

  • Common Swift (Korscheltellus lupulina) A strongly marked species with beautiful coloration. This common species will fly at dusk and can be attracted to house lights so check those porch lights to spot this one!  The larvae feed on the roots of grasses and other herbaceous plants and as such they are found in arrange of habitats from grassland to urban sites.   
  • Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi) – A large unmistakeable species which comes frequently to light. As its name suggests the larvae of this species feed on poplars and select willows. It is the most widely distributed hawkmoth in the British Isles. It is always lovely to see a hawkmoth and this is species is certainly a head turner!
  • Maiden’s Blush (Cylophora punctaria) – A distinctively marked species which gets its name from the central reddish blush on the forewing. It is widely distributed across England and Wales North to Yorkshire, very local to Scotland and Ireland. It can be disturbed by day from its larval food plant which is oaks.
  • White ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda) – This beautiful species comes readily to light and is widespread throughout most of Britain and Ireland. Its larval food plants include the common nettle (Urtica dioica), so try to leave a patch of these in the garden to encourage this species.
  • Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala) –When at rest this amazing species holds its wings vertically against its body this helps to disguise the species as they look like a broken twig! These can be found at rest during the day but also come to light. The larvae of this species feed on an array of trees and shrubs including birches, oaks and alder.

Species Identification and recording

The most time consuming part of moth trapping is identifying which species you have caught! Is it any wonder with over 900 species of macro and over of 1600 species of micro moths in the UK alone. Don’t worry there are lots of resources for moth identification include:

  • The What’s Flying tonight app – this is a fantastic resource showing species which are commonly recorded flying in your area on any given night.
  • The Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend – this provides extensive knowledge regarding flight seasons, life cycles, and larval food plants and provides detailed illustrations of all species by Richard Lewington.
  • Biological recording schemes (i.e The National Moth Recording Scheme) – these collate species observations, and offer a wealth of online information such as species lists, recommended resources and identification help.
  • Facebook is 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 and contact @NHM_ID on Twitter.
  • In 2013, the Museum started the iCollections project to digitise half a million British and Irish Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). To digitise, we photographed 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. The data portal can now be used to search for species you have found in your moth trap; this can be useful to confirm identification and to discover if the Museum hold any specimens which originated from your local area.

Once you have successfully identified your species please ensure you record that biological record with a relevant recording scheme, your county moth recorder or on iRecord. If you require further information about biological records or recording please refer to my previous NHM blog on the UK Pyralidae and Crambidae or find further information from Butterfly Conservation.

If you have been inspired to get moth trapping and you spot any of these species or any other moths which you are excited about please share your finds with us on Twitter or Instagram @NHM_digitise.

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