How to : See more of your garden moths

In this ‘How to…’ article we will take a look at how to see more of the moths visiting your garden or local area.

Even if you have just a little curiosity or think it might be fun (especially with children!) then read on…..

Laurie Campbell : Angle Shades Moth

Laurie Campbell : Angle Shades Moth

It is widely estimated that the average garden has 35 moth species per butterfly species! This profusion of species (estimated to be around 2400!)is not widely appreciated, mainly because most of the species fly at night or that they are well camouflaged against their backgrounds. However, as would perhaps be expected with so many species, the array of shapes, sizes and colours is amazing, but don’t forget moths can be pretty tricky to identify so a good guide book is recommended, alternatively websites are available that will be of help and are listed at the end of the article.

So, being that they tend to fly at night and that they are usually well camouflaged how are we going to get a closer look?

Well, we have all seen moths almost randomly so we could wait patiently and keep our fingers crossed or we can take steps to move the odds in our favour.

There are a wide variety of approaches that we can take to attract moths, we can plant particular ‘moth attracting’ plants in our gardens, mimic their food supply, use a moth trap of some description, or even try and get them drunk!

Both moths and butterflies share a common need for high energy foods due to their method of travel. This most commonly comes in the form of nectar, sap or any form of sugar; naturally this may be fermenting fruit, and of course artificially may be from a wide range. With this in mind we will have a look at each method in turn.

Moth Attracting Plants

Laurie Campbell : Emperor Moth

Laurie Campbell : Emperor Moth

This is basically any plant that smells strongly at night, this allows for quite a wide range and includes Red Campion, ice-plant Sedum, honeysuckle – Lonicera, sallow, ivy, red valerian, buddleia, evening primrose and tobacco plant – nicotiana as particular favourites. It is also beneficial to select some plants which flower early in the year, some in the middle and late in the season so a food supply is always available. The strong scents from the plants will attract passing moths where they can be observed by going out into your garden with your torch. Of course, these nectar rich strong smelling flowers will also attract and be very beneficial to lots of other wildlife such as butterflies and bees. Taking this approach should encourage wildlife into your garden day and night!

Mimic food supplies (aka sugaring)

This is a fairly broad method. Providing what you produce is sticky, sweet and smelly then you are onto a winner. A wide range of sugary substances can be used and a popular method is to mix a combination of sugar, treacle, fruit juice and sugary drinks and warm in a pan (possibly adding water if it gets too thick – or more fruit juice) until the sugar has dissolved and you have reached a consistency that can be painted onto tree trunks, fence posts etc. using a paint brush but is not so thin that it drips off onto the floor.

As an alternative a thinner mixture can be made and soaked into rags which can then be hung in trees. Once you have your potion, either paint it onto trees, posts etc or hang it in trees (depending which method was used) just before dusk and then leave it for a little while. Once darkness falls then you can go out with a torch and check to see what you have managed to entice. It is also worth noting that different habitats may yield different moths. If you are in a position to try varying habitats it may be both rewarding and quite an interesting study.

Use a moth trap

Laurie Campbell : Garden Tiger Moth

Laurie Campbell : Garden Tiger Moth

As with many other nocturnal insects, moths are attracted to flames and lights. The reasons for this are not certain but it is thought that it has to do with using the moon for navigation. Whatever the scientific reason, it is something that we can easily use to our advantage in trying to see more of our some of our night time visitors.

The term ‘moth trap’ can be applied to a range of methods from very basic to pretty sophisticated.

In the most basic form any kind of light will attract moths; this may be an outside light, a torch or even just leaving a room light on and keeping an eye on your window.

The next level of complexity is to incorporate the use of a white sheet with a light source pointing at it. The sheet can be either draped over a fence or branch or tied between two trees etc. This method can only really be used on fairly still nights or you may well lose your sheet, and moths and other insects may find it pretty hard to land on. Once you have setup your sheet on a calm (and preferably cloudy) night then you can sit back and see what you attract. As the light source is already on the sheet it provides a great way to clearly see anything landing on it.

If you want to take full advantage of the above methods then you need to prepare for the long haul. Moth activity is at its peak in the few hours after nightfall but also has surges around midnight and again before dawn. Unless you are really really curious, or perhaps having an extended garden party where you can actually still see straight then you are very unlikely to want to sit out for this long. This isn’t a problem, as mentioned the few hours after nightfall are a great time to watch moths so these methods still provide lots of fun moth watching.

If you do wish to see visitors that have passed by your garden during the night but do not wish to stay up waiting then you will need to fully fledged moth trap.

Laurie Campbell : Early Thorn Moth

Laurie Campbell : Early Thorn Moth

Moth traps come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Specialist traps can be bought from around £75 or you can have a go at making your own at a much cheaper rate. There are different designs to have a go at building; the basic components are a light source, a container such as a box or bucket, a funnelling device that sits on the top of your container and some empty cardboard egg boxes. The universal idea is simple, once the trap has been constructed, they can be switched on and left overnight, the moths are attracted to the light, their flight is halted by the funnel and they slide into the container, once there they will remain unharmed until the morning when you eagerly rush out to see what you have caught. We must, of course, mention that care should be taken with electricity, especially due to damp and possibility of rain. It is also worth noting that the bulbs get very hot and should be cover with a pyrex bowl to prevent cracking if rained on.

An example of a DIY trap design and comprehensive instructions can be found on this website.

…..get them drunk

Sounds funny or even slightly sinister, but it is an old favourite more commonly known as wine ropes, and is a deviation of the sugaring method. The method is very simple, take the cheapest bottle of red wine you can find, a bag of sugar and either some rope of strips of fabric. Heat the wine up and dissolve the sugar into it, then soak the rope or the material. Once soaked you can hang it on trees or fences just before dusk, and then check to see what it attracts as above, the alcohol will make them quite subdued and very easy to observe!

And finally

We have covered a good range of techniques to see more of these relatively common but very under appreciated garden visitors. I hope that I have managed to peak your interest if even just a little, moth recording is great fun especially with children and as the numbers are high, you are extremely likely to have great success on your very first go – identifying what you are seeing may be a little more tricky but it all adds to the fun.

I hope that you now feel the urge try a few of these techniques in your local area, and ideally that you contribute your findings to the NMN either this year (if you were very quick) or next year (after you have had ages to practise!).

Have fun broadening your wildlife knowledge and getting into a whole new world of moths.