Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the best book for identifying British butterflies and moths?  Unfortunately there is no single book that covers the subject, but I can recommend two, one on butterflies and one on moths. The best reference book for butterflies is, in my opinion, "The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland" by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington. This is published in association with the National Trust and costs 16.99. For moths there is the "Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland" by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, with illustrations by Richard Lewington. This costs 29.95. Until I got this book two years ago I used to struggle with moth identifications (and still do but to a far lesser extent!). Apart from that, there is also "Colour Identification to the Moths of the British Isles" by Bernard Skinner. This costs around 40, and is useful for showing details of the under wings, whereas the Waring and Townsend book shows the moths at rest, with their wings folded, just as you will encounter them.
  2. What kind of trap do you use?  I use a Robinson trap, which many people consider to be the Rolls-Royce of moth traps. The downside is that it costs the best part of 400, though it is sometimes possible to purchase one much cheaper through the Internet. There are other traps, the Skinner and the Actinic. The Skinner works on the same principle as the Robinson and though less efficient is a much cheaper trap. The Actinic uses a low light emission lamp and has the advantage of portability, since it is relatively small and can be operated from a car battery. The other two require mains electricity or a generator.
  3. Are the moths harmed by the traps?  Certainly not! Trapping moths is in order to study and record them, not destroy them. What happens is that they are attracted to the light and then go inside the trap to roost. They will (usually!) remain there until daybreak or until the light is switched off, then they make their way out. After the identification and counting process is completed, they are placed under cover so that they remain protected from predators, especially birds, and can leave in their own time, though most will stay put until the early evening before departing.
  4. So you don't kill them and use pins to stick them on boards?  Again, certainly not! It is true that sometimes moths are forwarded for an inspection for scientific reasons that can, unfortunately, entail them being killed, but personally I have never done this. If you want to "collect" moths and butterflies, do it with the camera.
  5. How many moths do you get in the trap?  The highest number I have ever had is over 600, but that is unusual. During the peak period from July to September a normal count would be between 1,000 and 250. But you have to be prepared for nights when you get nothing at all. Generally speaking, warm, humid summer nights are when the highest numbers occur.
  6. What is the highest number you have ever trapped of a single species?  I had 237 Large Yellow Underwings one night in September 2005. That was higher than normal, but around here to get over 100 of this species is not uncommon.
  7. Do moths only fly during the night?  Definitely not. There are several day-flying species of moth, in fact one of the most common moths I get asked to identify is the Six-spot Burnet, which is a very common day-flying moth found along the North Downs in Kent. Another, though not yet seen in Kent, is the Jersey Tiger, which has started to colonise counties in the south-west as far inland as Gloucestershire. I saw dozens of them in the gardens of Hidcote Manor some years ago, which were proving a great puzzle to other visitors striving to identify this strange "butterfly".
  8. What is the best way to attract butterflies into my garden?  There is a whole range of suitable plants that will certainly attract butterflies (and moths) of certain species, but what they really like are places that have been left untended. Many modern species of plants are totally unsuitable for butterflies because they either do not provide the nectar or because it is there but the butterflies can't reach it. Some plants they find unattractive, perhaps because they are the wrong colours. For an example, the cultivated buddleias in my garden get a fraction of the butterflies on them compared with one growing wild just a few hundred yards away. The Royal Horticultural Society publishes a booklet on some of the plants that you can grow, which you may find a help.
  9. There seem to be a lot less butterflies around than there were when I was younger. Is this really the case?  Unfortunately it is. Butterflies and moths have been on the decline for many years, not helped by recent weather patterns in which we have had a series of cold springs and autumns. This has had a detrimental effect on butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral, which hibernate and emerge to lay their eggs in the spring, the butterflies from which, in their turn, are the generation that lays the eggs for the later brood hibernating the following winter. Thus they suffer at both ends of the cycle. Even more important than numbers is the sharp decline in the variety of butterfly species. Within the last couple of years it is likely that the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, which was just hanging on in woods near Canterbury, has finally become extinct in Kent. Two others, the Wall and the Grayling, are now only seen in the very south-east part of the county along the coast in diminishing numbers, while others, the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary, Heath Fritillary and Silver-spotted Skipper are confined to just a few enclaves. Several others are becoming increasingly rare, among them the Grizzled Skipper, Small Copper, Dark Green Fritillary and Small Heath.
  10. What camera do you use?  I use a Fujifilm S5000 digital camera. Although not an ideal camera in several respects it is affordable and with a little perseverance can take superb photographs. The main drawback is that it switches itself off automatically while you are waiting to take a picture, and then has to be turned on again. When taking photographs of any form of wildlife this can be a constant irritation as the subject can choose that moment to take off so you miss your chance. Another is that you get a shadow at the bottom of the picture when using flashlight for close-ups (and hence I rarely try to use it). Also, the zoom does not give such good results in macro mode (or maybe that is just me being inept?).
  11. Are there any special tips for photographing butterflies and moths?  Yes - take lots of photos while you have the chance and, where possible, try changing the background and the position with respect to the light. I have sometimes taken 50 or more photos in order to get the one excellent one you see on the website. Another is to inspect the photos you have just take immediately afterwards, because can be quite infuriating to find they are all out of focus after the moth has flown away.
  12. Do butterflies and moths make easy subjects for photography?  Well yes and no! Most moths are fairly docile during the day and will readily submit to being picked up on a pencil gently inserted beneath their body and deposited on a suitable surface. Others are just the opposite and will either fly away if disturbed, or, in the case of moths, immediately head for cover. A moth has many enemies and to survive it has keep still and to try to blend in with its background or it has to hide.
  13. I have seen a caterpillar with a big sting on the tail - is this harmful?  No, but you and any potential predators are encouraged to think that it is! These are the caterpillars of the hawk-moths and it is an appendage meant to look just like a sting. It certainly worked in your case. You are far more likely to be "stung" by other caterpillars, some of which can secret a liquid that causes skin irritations. As a rule of thumb, avoid using your bare hands to pick up caterpillars with lots of yellow markings.
  14. Is the main difference between butterflies and moths that butterflies close their wings vertically and moths close them flat?  You might expect that to be the case but it is not true. Skipper butterflies do not close their wings vertically, instead they rest with the upper wing open at an angle of around 30o. On the other hand, several moths of the Geometrid family, which is the one closest to butterflies in many respects, can close their wings vertically and in many other ways including colour can resemble butterflies. Hence why I am sometimes asked about the big green butterfly that has been seen, which, of course, is a Large Emerald moth