The Magic of Moths

27 June 2019 | Posted in Emma Chaplin , Rye Harbour , Insects
The Magic of Moths
Garden Tiger Moth (c) Barry Yates

We speak to Chris Bentley, Warden of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, about his love of moths

What is it you like about moths?

They are fascinating. There's a huge variety of size and colour, and I particularly like moths that pretend to be other things, such as sticks, bark, a dead leaf or a different kind of creature altogether - such as this Hornet Moth. Mimicry is a successful strategy to protect yourself from predators and the Hornet Moth is a fantastic mimic. The moth is as large as a hornet and even replicates the hornet’s jerky flight when disturbed. We were really pleased to see that this one was recently sighted near Peasmarsh, when it had been thought they were extinct in Sussex - only having been recorded twice since 1905.

Hornet moth

Then there's the colourful Elephant Hawk-moth, so named that because the caterpillar looks a little like an elephant's trunk, and pretends to be a snake! The foodplants it likes are Bedstraws, Willowherbs, Fuchsias, and Gooseberry, but the adults live only on nectar.

Elephant hawk moth (c) Barry Yates

Others, such as this Eyed Hawk-moth have eyes on their wings, to flash at birds to frighten away predators. It has a wingspan of 75mm and an amazing 'face', as you can see, that resembles a cat. Eyed Hawk caterpillars feed on Willow, Poplar or apple trees, but as an adult it doesn't feed at all.

Close up eye hawk moth (c) Barry Yates

You have a lot of species of moth at Rye Harbour?

We do, but then the list of rare species here is huge. Many caterpillars feed on grass, which is a good evolutionary path - there are a lot of grasses. 

Eye hawk moth (c) Barry Yates

Don't they eat wool?

Very few species do that. Most feed on vegetation, including Brambles and Dandelions, although one species, the Satellite Moth, is a partial carnivore, that feeds on other caterpillars. 

How long do moths live?

Adult moths generally only live a few weeks, but can be caterpillars for several months before this, particularly if they overwinter in this stage, and some even several years.

What do moths need to thrive?

They need the right food and enough of it. And they need the right weather, usually hot and dry. In the south east, it's generally warmer, so we get the species that need that. We are also near to the continent, so we get moths that come over and establish themselves with some species caught in weather systems from southern Europe. If there have been 'eruptions' further south, they have to spread out, so find their way here. 

What's the difference between butterflies and moths? 

There isn't a difference. Some butterflies are more similar to moths than to other butterflies. Butterflies can be more colourful, but not always. All butterflies fly in the day, but so do a lot of moths.

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Privet Hawk Moth

To find out more about the marvellous moths at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, come along to one of the events taking place, such as Moth Morning and Moths by Moonlight

Photos by Barry Yates, other than the Hornet Moth, photo by David Noble. 


  • joy:

    27 Jun 2019 15:27:00

    i would like to know about the migration of this moth. They are so fasinating i am considering raising a few

  • Erika Weston:

    04 Jul 2021 20:47:00

    I used to have a fear of moths, don’t ask why as I don’t know. Maybe it’s how they fly… Anyway, I’m now curious about them as I get closer to 60. There’s one I’d like help identifying please. I’m in Eastbourne, Sussex and often we find a moth in our home that looks like it’s rolled up it’s wings as there’s barely any width to them, they’re like tubes. I’m having to go on memory as the photo is long gone, but maybe you could say it’s like a cross? Pale cream in colour. About a 2p in size. Can you help?

    Answer: Could it be a Plume Moth? There are a number of Plume Moth species, but the Common Plume moth sounds likely. More about this species here.
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