Sussex Wildlife Trust is focusing on nocturnal wildlife this week so I thought I'd do my bit by pouring a glass of wine and sitting outside in the garden after the sun had set. It was a lovely night and, as darkness slowly seeped across the garden I saw something strange and amazing, something I have only seen once before.
Last summer, as the sun set over the South Downs, I was wandering through a wood on a twilight hike. Through the trees I noticed about a dozen figures decked out in brilliant white gathering in a small clearing. I hit the floor, flat on my belly, buried amongst the bracken, I watched as other white figures joined them. Each individual slowly started swaying, swinging hypnotically like a pendulum suspended on an invisible wire. The whole silent scene felt eerie, otherworldly, ancient. I was spellbound and barely breathing, scared I would be discovered and this mesmerising performance would end. As some of the figures swung fixed to their stations others oscillated wildly, whirling and crashing into each other. The light was fading fast and as my surroundings dissolved into shadow the swaying white figures seemed luminous against the gloom. I nervously reached for my camera and started filming - gathering some evidence of this strange event.
It's not the best footage...but if you squint you can see them.
Then, as the full moon rose and illuminated the glade, the action slowed, the figures retreated and I was left alone in the gloaming.
The ritual I had witnessed was not the pseudo-sinister secret ceremony of some part-time pagans. This was the dance of the Ghost Moths: elaborate courtship behaviour performed by the male moths on warm summer evenings across Sussex. That moonlit glade had been temporarily transformed into a miniature moth disco where these incredible insects pirouetted, pranced, swaggered and strutted in an attempt to attract a female. More ‘Saturday Night Fever’ than ‘The Wicker Man’.
And, like tiny Travoltas, the male Ghost Moths know that to stand out on a crowded dancefloor you need a flashy white suit. Male Ghost Moth wings look as though they have been hand-painted with Tipp-Ex.
(Male Ghost Moth. Photo by Ben Sale)
The female Ghost Moth has a more subdued wardrobe and wears pale yellow wings with elegant orange swirls.
(Female Ghost Moth. Photo by Ben Sale)
Males also have another trick up their sleeve (or in this case their trouserlegs). Their hind legs contain furry scent-brushes which release pheromones into the air which act as an overpowering aphrodisiac. Once the ladies are lured it’s the individual moth’s dancing which seals the deal. It can be murder on the dancefloor and scuffles start as the males try to assert their positions. It’s a behaviour known as lekking and the dominant dancers will lead a lucky lady of the lek into the surrounding shadows.
And this was what I witnessed in my own back garden last night. It wasn't the full-on party, just a solo performance by a lone male Ghost Moth dancing in the moonlight a few inches above my wildflower lawn. I was going to grab my camera but I knew the performance would not last long, so I sat there with my wine and watched him dancing on air.
In days gone by the moth’s mysterious, ethereal waltz was interpreted as something supernatural and it has been suggested that the dance of the Ghost Moth gave rise to local legends of fairies and Will-O’-The–Wisp.
For many years I believed an empty dancefloor, the BeeGees and a splash of Brut 33 was all I needed for the ladies to fall under my spell. Yet the Ghost Moths seem to have more success than me. Maybe I should have gone for the white suit too. (here)