Moths and butterflies have amazing superpowers. Butterflies are beautiful – that is one of their superpowers. We see butterflies and think of spring and summer, we draw butterflies, photograph butterflies, we visit them in butterfly houses. They are delicate and ephemeral and it lifts our spirits to see them. Children (and adults too I think) are excited if a butterfly settles near them or on them. And to elicit this response in us is a true superpower – butterflies give beauty and happiness and inspire creativity.
Butterflies have been placed into a group by scientists – the Order Lepidoptera. Lepidoptera means scale wings, and the patterning on the wings of insects in this order is made up from pigments in tiny scales which cover the wings. These scales are modified hairs and it is they that rub off to make the powder you see on your fingers if you try to pick up a butterfly. But it is not only the butterflies that are placed into the Order Lepidotera – moths are also placed here. Micheal Chinery, in his Collins Field Guide ‘Insects of Britain and Northern Europe’, states that although nearly 2500 species of Lepidoptera occur in the British Isles, only about sixty butterflies regularly breed in the UK, with a few more making sporadic visits from the continent. Most of us would recognise a number of butterfly species, but with so many more species of moth than butterfly in this country, how many of us can recognise any of the different moth species? We all know about the butterflies because their superpower connects immediately with us, but what about the moths? Moths are amazing too, it just takes us to look a bit deeper to discover their superpowers.
I set myself the task of writing about moths today, but living with Joe for so long has meant his autism constantly influences my perspective on life. I see Joe a bit like these moths. He has some serious superpowers; he has an incredible brain that is wired differently to many people’s, but his autism can mean his superpowers are harder to see than those of my other children. As I write about moths, I am reminded that it is always worth taking the effort to find Joe’s superpowers – he is truly amazing.
So what is the moth’s super power? They see the world in an entirely different way to me (still sounding like someone else I know). Mostly the moths fly at night, they live in a world which lacks many of the visual clues the butterflies use. Obviously, this makes finding a mate difficult. Male butterflies tend to look for a food plant and hang out there till they see a female come along. Moths, as a general rule, can’t do that. Instead, they use chemoreception – they are able to perceive molecules. How incredible is that? A male silk moth (Bombyx mori) can detect a single molecule of bombykol (a compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – C16H30O to be precise) in the air. It is all down to a moth’s antennae. Adult males have thousands of olfactory hairs on their antennae, and it is these that allow them to smell. So all a female has to do is produce the particular chemical molecule (pheromone) that works for her species, and any male up to a mile downwind can smell her. The male will then follow the trail to her. What an fascinating way to navigate the world – by molecules.
A pheromone is the name given to any chemical produced by one animal that influences the behaviour of another animal of the same species, and it is pheromones and the moth’s superpower of chemoreception which is exploited by Butterfly Conservation to survey the distribution of particular moths. For the last two years, we have put a moth trap containing the pheromone of the rare ‘Barred tooth-striped’ moth (Trichopteryx polycommata) in our woods at around this time of year. If the moth was there, it would be attracted to the trap and be held there till the morning when one of us, full of anticipation, would go up to the wood, photograph and release any moths that were caught during the night. For two years, we have failed to catch a Barred tooth-stripped moth, but instead have trapped the more common ‘Early tooth-striped’ moth (Trichopteryx carpinata), a close relative, which is also attracted to the same pheromone lure. Do I care that we only have the ‘common’ tooth-striped moth in the wood? Not a bit. The intricate patterns on this moth’s wings are beautiful, and the superpowers of this woodland moth are no less incredible for it being common. It would blend in so well to its food plants honeysuckle and silver birch, that I would never notice it under normal circumstances. I am so lucky to see this moth in our woods, and as I watch it fly away on it’s release, I feel enriched for having seen another of nature’s hidden treasures.