Shining a light on the magical world of moths

Mostly night flyers, moths get a raw deal compared with butterflies, their more visible and showy cousins. Time to set a moth trap and see what’s out there.

It was a perfect night for moths. There was very little wind and, at 15 degrees, it was positively balmy for an autumnal evening.

My family and I had met up with fellow nature lovers at a farm property in Bulmer, near Sudbury, to set a moth trap and to see what lepidoptera might flit our way.

A friend had asked me several days earlier why someone would want to trap moths? To me the answer was obvious – to see what is out there, flying unseen in the night sky.

I have felt for a long time that moths get a raw deal when it comes to the interest people take in them, compared with their high-profile cousins: butterflies. While most of us can name quite a number of our common butterflies, few people have much knowledge of the different species of moths that exist. However, our ignorance is disproportionate.

According to the charity Butterfly Conservation, while around 60 species of butterfly are known to exist in the UK, there are an incredible 2,500 species of moths – with more establishing every decade as they migrate and colonise from continental Europe.

And while some moths are active during the day, the majority come alive at night. Their life in the shadows placing them out of sight, and thus out of mind.

Swapping Xboxes for egg boxes Photos: Ross Bentley


The evening had been organised by the Sudbury Watch Group, an informal network of wildlife enthusiasts affiliated to Suffolk Wildlife Trust, who hold regular events aimed at educating and inspiring children about the many native flora and fauna we have in this part of the world.

We’ve been attending these fun and educational events on and off for many years – pond-dipping, birdwatching and fungi-spotting – and now with my sons aged nine and 11 it is becoming increasingly difficult to drag them out for such activities. But they had agreed to come along and were joined by three or four other children – with parents and guardians in tow – as we sat around the moth trap expectantly.

Knowledgeable volunteers Robin, Roxanne and Peter, who were leading the adventure, had improvised tonight’s moth trap.

All moth traps typically follow the same basic design – consisting of a bright light to attract the moths and a box in which the moths accumulate, so they can be examined later. The idea is that moths fly towards the light, spiralling downwards and are deflected into the box.

Experienced moth-ers might set a trap then retire to the pub, returning several hours later to examine their bounty. Some will wait until the next day, so they can get a better look in the clear light.


Because we were watching the moths as they arrived, our trap was rather more simplistic. Instead of one large collecting box, we had the light placed on a white sheet surrounded by a number of torn egg boxes. The idea was that the dazzled moths would crawl under the egg boxes, seeking respite from the bright light, and thus enable us to carefully transfer them into a viewing jar where we could take a better look.

The kids, for once away from their computer screens, were hooked and eagerly awaiting the first arrivals. An evening where they had swapped Xboxes for egg boxes, perhaps?

No-one is really sure why many insects and moths in particular are attracted to light. One theory is that moths migrate using the moon and stars as navigational aids and bright lights closer to earth disorientate them, causing them to spiral and fly into the light.

Robin explained that different moths can be seen at different times of the year and even at different times of the night.

Darkness fell at around 7.30pm and, after a slow start, the moths started to arrive.

The guidebook came in handy


The children vied with each other to cup their hands over the first comers but soon there were enough for everyone. Robin manned the identification table – comparing the captured insects with those illustrated in his numerous field guides.

Moths that we were able to identify included the delicate yellow brimstone complete with brown flecks on its wing tips, and the more substantial yellow underwing flashing orange and yellow as it fluttered – its large antennae resembling over-bushy eyebrows. Other moths that made an impression were the feather thorn moth – its beautiful rusty-coloured wings topped with a mane of sorts flowing from the head; and the square spot rustic moth – greyish and unassuming with its distinctive markings.

What struck me was how autumnal all the colours were – perfect for hiding against tree bark or next to leaves on the turn.

Their beauty was less obvious than their butterfly cousins but the closer I looked the more I could appreciate the intricate designs on the wing and the feathery antennae – their serene stillness in contrast to the manic flapping they had exhibited around the light moments before.

They were stunning and fascinating, and to think there are so many different species out there that we rarely see. From now on I will give more time to moths, and learn more about the different species.

I guess you could say, I’ve started to see moths in a new light.

This article first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in October 2017.

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