Where have all the moths gone?

Outdoor Living

HONEYSUCKLE SUPPING ‘My glade warmed gradually as I sat to watch hoverflies and bumblebees take turns at the flowers’.  Pic: Michael Kingdon

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

We’ve had a week to digest the latest climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their words should be sobering. They should stop this giddy ride we’re on and turn us from destruction and ruin before it really is too late.
The situation might be likened to a man standing on the ice of a frozen lake. He has in his hand a sharp stick, which he uses to poke holes through the ice. ‘Better not do that’ is the advice given. The reasons are obvious, as are the consequences. But will he listen? No. Why, he can stop if things go wrong, can’t he?
It must have been 30 years ago that I took my first summer night drive from Castlebar to Moore Hall, yet I remember the clouds of moths along the Clogher Bog and around the Lough Carra shoreline as if it were yesterday. And living here was like living in a lepidopterist’s paradise – from May through October the tap-tapping of moths eager to make their way through the window to attain the light within was unending, and any summer walk along the lake shore showed us hundreds more.
The majority of them were rather dull, even drab, and it was hard for the novice to distinguish between one and the next. No doubt each of the 1,350 or so moth species Ireland has to offer has some fascinating aspect to its life cycle. But rather like the safari tourist who overlooks the pretty, semi aquatic and rather curious type of mouse Nilopegamys while in search of something more exotic, we ignored these lesser species while admiring ermine, orange underwing and cinnabar, as well as countless others of equal beauty.
And the hawk moths! Who could fail to be impressed by the huge poplar hawk with a wingspan approaching 9cm, or the incredibly beautiful, pink and green elephant hawk?
Last week, at the edge of the beech grove, I found the long and slender, decurved trumpets that are honeysuckle blossom. I stumbled upon them in half light, finding the long, twining stems and the flowers they bear more by scent than by sight, and kept my torch upon them through many minutes, hoping to see something come to feed.
This plant seems to send its delicious perfume out in rich pulses, for there is little fragrance for a while and then nearly too much. But of moths there was no sign.
I returned in daylight, with weak sun struggling to break through the overcast as if it were already autumn. My glade warmed gradually as I sat to watch hoverflies and bumblebees take turns at the flowers.
The snout hoverfly has a sort of dabber with which it gathers pollen, while the bee uses a long, hollow tongue to drink from deep within the nectaries. Both are effective pollinators in their own right, yet our honeysuckle advertises herself by night, hoping to draw her specialist lover, the elephant hawk moth.
So why so few moths? After all, Ireland is one of the least industrialised nations in the western world, and here in the west we ought to have the best of what remains of our wildlife.
Back in 2017, scientists were warning that some 75 percent of insect biomass had been lost around the world. How many species were becoming extinct was, and still is, unquantifiable.
Two years later, the Guardian newspaper reported that the amount of insect life that had disappeared had increased to 80 percent.
In summer of 2021, there appear to be no hawk moths along the northern shore of Carra – possibly for the first time ever. We are not immune.
So now my goal is to find hawk moths. We shall have a warm week in which to do so, after which we will likely be back to the rain.
A simple moth attractant can be made using beer and brown sugar. The darker the sugar the better, but a touch of molasses will help if the proper stuff can’t be got. (White sugar is useless, by the way.) The mixture can be painted onto the trunk or branches of a tree out of reach of the cat, which will merrily kill every large moth it can get its paws on.
The number of moths that come to feed will likely increase over time, so add more of the mixture daily. There are no moths that bite or sting, nor will they get into your hair. They are precious. We can’t afford to lose them.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.