Naming of moths

27 August 2020 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Insects
Naming of moths
Peach Blossom Moth © Bob Eade

By Charlotte Owen

Large Emerald. White Ermine. Angle Shades. Peach Blossom. Burnished Brass. These are just some of the magical names that flutter to life in the garden after dark, alongside Pale Tussock, Feathered Thorn and Scalloped Oak. For centuries, moths have cast a spell of fascination and intrigue so potent they have been bestowed with some of the most beautiful, fanciful and charming names in natural history.

In a break from tradition, the Victorians can’t take all the credit. Many names still in use today first emerged in the 1600s, which explains the Lutestrings, Brocades, Wainscots and Footmen. Lots are more descriptive, which is helpful when trying to identify which of the 2,500 native species has settled on the ceiling. It’s easy to picture the Black V, Orange Underwing, Speckled Yellow and Chocolate-tip but others are more inventive, from the sooty-black Chimney Sweeper to the tropical sunset colours of the Beautiful Marbled, and you could even roll out the Red Carpet. Moth names often refer to the time of year, preferred habitat or larval food plant, so we have the November Moth, July Highflier, Grass Eggar and Heath Rivulet. But there is no escaping the fact that many moths are very similar in appearance and even the experts struggle sometimes, as evidenced by the Uncertain, Suspected, and Confused.

If you’re keen to put a face to some of these names, try opening a window after dark and leaving the light on. Moths navigate by the stars and are attracted to light, so a bright white bathroom makes an excellent moth trap. Pick a warm, still night and it won’t be long before the first visitors arrive, ready for you to puzzle out their identity. There’s a handy guide to what’s flying tonight on the Sussex Moth Group website to help narrow things down – but even if you’re not sure what you’re looking at, it’s fascinating to take a closer look at these nocturnal animals and marvel at their amazing diversity. To encourage more flying Carpets, Kittens and Waves, try growing a night-scented nectar buffet of honeysuckle, jasmine and evening primrose – and prepare to be spellbound by the magic of moths.

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