July 22, 2024

Everyone loves bees and butterflies, but now moths are in the spotlight (as long as they don’t fly around them).

Moth expert Charles Waters has seen a surprisingly rapid increase in interest in moths from the younger generation as, he believes, people become more aware of their beauty and diversity, as well as their importance as pollinators.

“Moths are more significant pollinators because there are so many of them. In the UK there are 59 butterfly species but there are 2,500 moth species,” he said.

At the Moonshadow Moth Garden at the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, which started this week, he showed off a variety of caterpillar and moth-friendly plants.

British native wildflowers that moths love include wild strawberry, scab and knotweed. The Moodshadow garden also boasted a large and colorful buddleia bush enjoyed by butterflies and moths, and had “messy” areas with long grass, and wood and twigs for the moths to rest on.

“I am secretary of the Sussex Moth Group,” Walker said, “and the number of members is growing rapidly, and that’s because people are much more aware and much more interested, which can only be a good thing.” The increase also includes young people. “In the past, the age group old fuddy-duddies – I’d say like me, but I’m only 65. There are some 85-year-olds who have been catching moths for 50 years, but we’re now getting an influx of younger people.”

According to Walker, moths have often been ignored in favor of other pollinators, as they are largely nocturnal. They have also been unfairly maligned due to some particularly disliked species such as clothes moths and goat tree moths.

In fact, only five species, out of the 2500, will eat dust. “Then you have the buckthorn moths and the oak marching caterpillars, which can cause allergic reactions, so it’s understandable that people don’t like them,” he added, “but that’s a small fraction of the huge number of species of moths that we have .”

To demonstrate the diversity and number of moths, the night before the show he set up a non-lethal moth trap in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace that caught 400, including elephant hawk moths and buff-pointed moths. They were all released in a beautiful cloud.

He captures moths all over Sussex and has noted their decline, which is largely due to habitat loss. Caterpillars feed on native wildflowers and grasses, which have been stripped from the landscape by intensive farming and infrastructure construction. “They do at least as bad if not worse than other pollinators,” Waters said.

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Studies have found the overall number of moths in the UK has decreased by 33% since 1968. Some species have faced steep declines. The garden tiger has declined by 90% since 1968, the harrier has declined by 59% and the white ermine numbers have fallen by 71%. Conservation efforts are beginning to show glimmers of hope for some species.

Trees are very important for moths, Waters added: “Oaks are the best trees for the moths because they are well established in the UK and have been for hundreds of thousands of years. Ideally you want a mix of trees, shrubs, wildflowers .They will all have their moth species, which have a caterpillar that prefers to feed on them.

“We need to try to reverse this decline, and making your garden a bit more moth-friendly can really help, as the decline is mostly driven by habitat loss.”

Saving the moths also means protecting Britain’s birds, which feed on the caterpillars and eggs.

“In addition to being important pollinators, they provide food for birds,” Waters said. “So without the insects you will lose the birds and break the ecosystem. So I think that’s the awareness we have to try to bring forward.”

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