A journey inside the tiny world of moths

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Interest in identifying moths has increased enormously over recent years. But not surprisingly most people concentrate on the “macros”, the bigger moths, which are often as colourful as butterflies and relatively easy to tell apart.

However, the same is not true of the “micro-moths”, some of which are so tiny they are barely visible. If you’ve ever walked through grassland in summer your footsteps may have put up a cloud of almost invisible insects. Many of these would have been miniscule moths which often occur in vast numbers. Take a closer look with a lens and you might be amazed at the beautiful patterns. Although many might fall into the category of “little brown jobs”, many more are extremely colourful.

Until fairly recently, micro moths have been largely ignored. But now more observers are realising that there is a whole new world to discover out there.

Look more closely and you might well be the first to record this or that species for your county.

Lenora Bruce had an even greater surprise last year. She had only been running a moth trap in her small Bridlington garden for some three years and still considered herself as a beginner, when an unfamiliar micro turned up. She passed it on to a more expert friend and he couldn’t put a name to it either. However, the Yorkshire Micro Recorder, Harry Beaumont, recognised it as a southern European species called a “cone tortricid”. Not only that, but it has just been accepted as new to Britain! You can imagine the excitement it caused.

One of the great problems about identifying micros has been the lack of an ID book. You’ve had to spend a fortune on scientific journals and specialist volumes in which you might pick up bits and pieces of information about one family group or another, but nothing covering or making sense of the whole range.

Till now that is. This month saw the publication of a 400-plus page full-colour Field Guide to the Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland, by Phil Sterling, Mark Parsons and Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing, £29.95).

I was aware it was in preparation, but had little idea of just how interesting and attractive it would turn out to be. It covers over 1000 species, with distribution maps and many photos of caterpillars, chrysalises, webs and even leaf patterns, where the caterpillar makes a recognisable pattern as it chews away between the skin layers of a single leaf. Richard Lewington’s paintings show each species in natural resting positions and really bring out the colours and detailed patterns. For farmers and landowners it will also be a useful guide to identifying and understanding some of those suspected pest species which may suddenly appear. The book also has a useful ID key to help those completely new to the study.

It’s a genuine landmark publication. Not only will it open up a new field of study and observation for many people, but I’m sure it will boost the recording of these fascinating creatures.

Howard Frost is Editor of Yorkshire’s annual Butterfly and Moth Report for Butterfly Conservation Yorkshire and the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, and can be contacted via www.yorkshirebutterflies.org.uk