‘I couldn’t tell my flatmates I was going mothing,’ Marna grins. ‘They wouldn’t understand.’ Given that it is not yet 6 am on a Sunday morning in early summer, the Ecuadorian student’s admission is perhaps understandable. At this hour, there can be very few University of East Anglia undergraduates not sound asleep. Eight who aren’t in bed are currently showing me round moth traps they have set overnight in secluded parts of the university’s riverside campus in Norwich.
Moths might seem an obscure branch of wildlife for Marna, Josie, Max, and friends to choose. From the Bible onwards, moths have been widely considered malign beings haunting dark nights. A 2019 YouGov poll revealed that three-quarters of people think negatively of moths, which are largely perceived to be clothes-destroying pests.
Such attitudes are misguided – unfortunate prejudice. Of our 2,500 moth species, just two munch textiles. Far from all moths flying by night, Britain harbours four times more day-flying species than it does butterflies. And talking of butterflies – which, of course, everyone loves – those lucky insects are no different from moths in taxonomic terms: all are scale-winged insects in the order Lepidoptera. It’s just that butterflies enjoy good PR.
Josie and Max know all this, of course. The duo is intent on winning the University Moth Challenge, an AFON and Butterfly Conservation competition encouraging students to record wildlife, particularly moths. They want to learn which moths frequent campus. And they yearn to win the category on participation – the most people joining a single event. I’m here to research a book that celebrates Britain’s rare and remarkable moths (Much Ado About Mothing, published by Bloomsbury in May). But I know I’ve actually been invited to boost numbers.
Josie and Max have long been smitten by moths for many reasons. Josie got into mothing because of its similarity to bird-ringing. ‘But I stayed with moths,’ she says, ‘because mothing is fun and moths are cool’.
Moths divulge great stories about evolution and the environment, from mimicry and migratory feats to camouflage and missives about the state of the planet. They also provide vital ecological services, being pivotal in food chains and pollinating both wild plants and agricultural crops: up to 45% of moths transport pollen across our agricultural landscapes. There’s even wackier benefits in play: a New World moth was integral to the production of the Novavax COVID vaccine while caterpillars of two British moths have the ability to break down plastics. And from a personal perspective, Josie says, moths offer never-ending interest: ‘there’s always more to learn and discover’. Moths are perfect for inspiring the environmentalists of the future.
We reach a trap in a boggy fen that neighbours reed, birch, and alder. Josie calls the name of every individual moth on a score of egg-trays tessellated within the black plastic tub, while Max diligently transcribes them. During the morning, they assiduously transcribe 700 moths of a hundred species. It is impressive work.
Attractive or interesting creatures are passed around for perusal. Poplar Hawk-moths provoke gasps of astonishment, then Josie eases a Pale Prominent onto her finger. It is the spitting image of a bark chip, the embodiment of crypsis. ‘Just look at it!’ Josie cries. ‘It’s so weird, such random evolution – and just so cool. Moths are so much better than butterflies.’
Come mid-morning, everyone is happy, buoyed by time outdoors, sparked by new sights, and buzzing with insights. Even Marna – admiring a hulking, furry, and delicately inscribed Puss Moth that stretches, cat-like, along her finger – is glad she came. ‘Moths are fun!’ she admits. ‘But I still can’t tell my flatmates.’