Hawk moths and a UV Moth Trap – the hidden world of the night

It took many years (and a not a small amount of pleasure) before I had to concede that I was not really a night person. Perhaps it is a consequence of the ageing process but I wake with the dawn and the riotous chorus the local avian fauna provides. There is some residual song from the nightingales, those that I suspect are nurturing a second brood, but the current most impressive choristers are the families of golden orioles that fly to the side of the fig tree facing from the house and call to one another with the latest information regarding the state of the fruit. After supper at night, moving pictures on the box act as a narcotizing agent and I am away in the Land of Nod…

The striped hawk (Hyles lineata) a superb streamlined flying machine

The striped hawk (Hyles livornica) a superb streamlined flying machine

I love my mornings and the way I can slip gently into the day – the birdsong, the cupboard love of three felines desperate for me to use my opposable thumbs and open a tin or two. That is not something that brings great joy to this lifelong vegetarian but it stops them bothering me and tramping across the computer keyboard to get my attention. A large espresso is an essential kick-starter and in the past few weeks I have been going outside, coffee mug in hand, to tramp down to the home-made moth trap placed between the house and one of our large oak trees.

The striped hawk (Hyles lineata) a superb streamlined flying machine

The striped hawk (Hyles livornica) a superb streamlined flying machine

As a few of my recent Facebook posts have indicated, the interest in moths (first evident in childhood) was renewed when my old friend Peter Parks came to stay. In the past two days there has been a real treat per day – Wednesday morning I noticed a very large hawk moth, one that I had only seen illustrations with beautiful soft markings. It was an oak hawk moth (Marumba quercus) – a superb animal whose subtle colouring makes it almost invisible when it settles amongst dried oak leaves. I thought that this would be something that would be hard to equal but today there was a single exquisite striped hawk moth (Hyles livornica) a superb flying machine capable of long distance migration. In the dim and distant past I had raised these from caterpillars but had only ever seen one in the wild when I went for an early morning walk near a hotel when leading natural history tour in southern Turkey.

The oak hawk (Marumba quercus.  a superbly camouflaged species when resting amidst dry oak leaves

The oak hawk (Marumba quercus. a superbly camouflaged species when resting amidst dry oak leaves

With my usual optimism, my mind is now filing with other possibilities – I can see nothing to prevent privet hawks, spurge and bedstraw hawks or both bee hawks (narrow and broad-bordered) and, if the gods were to smile very favourably then there might be a pine hawk or, dare I even whisper it, a death’s head hawk. Joy of joys, we have many oleander bushes ready and waiting for an itinerant oleander hawk.

I have no idea why I have not run the trap in June and July before this year. There has always been a great deal to do and time goes so quickly. With a moth trap there is both the excitement of anticipation in taking off the cover and then delight at the findings. Long ago, I put all my various ventures – the photography, writing, courses and tour leading under a single umbrella: Hidden Worlds. In those two words I can embody all that fascinates me – that world just beyond our gaze where those prepared to look can find treasures.

 The oak hawk (Marumba quercus a superbly camouflaged species when resting amidst dry oak leaves

The oak hawk (Marumba quercus a superbly camouflaged species when resting amidst dry oak leaves. The image was created using a Venus 60mm f/2.8 x2 macro. It is a truly superb lens with biting definition. You have to stop down to meter and expose but the extra effort is worth it for those prepared to take time.

We are often thankful here at Podere Montecucco, that it is simple things – especially those that cost no money – that provide such delight: clear skies at night, the delirious dawn chorus, lavender bushes humming with bees and butterflies. These are experiences that are so precious.

The eyed hawk (Smerinthus ocellata) - the eyes remain hidden and are exposed as a warning

The eyed hawk (Smerinthus ocellata) – the eyes remain hidden and are exposed as a warning

For anyone interested in moths and in capturing them as images then a moth trap can bring great satisfaction. There are commercial traps available but it is possible to make one of your own for a fraction of the price. Mine is based upon an old type – the Robinson trap. Using a large plastic vessel designed for the garden and a little bit of ingenuity with a translucent cover I built a trap to this design and then spent about €50 on a couple of mercury vapour discharge lamps and a “choke”. In general, you cannot plug Mercury vapour lamps directly into the mains – the choke slows the growth of electric current in circuit when you switch on and allows tiny globules of mercury within the lamp to vaporise. An electrical discharge through this vapour creates a light – the main proportion of this is visible light with strong emission in the yellow, green and blue regions of the visible spectrum but there is also UV emission, too.

Lime hawk (Mimas tiliae) an exquisitely coloured hawk moth

Lime hawk (Mimas tiliae) an exquisitely coloured hawk moth

Easier to use our so-called Actinic tubes and it is possible to find both screw and bayonet fitting long life bulbs that will emit UV radiation. Moths are attracted to light that is invisible to us and, on a good moth night (generally, but not always one that is muggy and warm) your trap will be full of treasures. It is important not to empty it somewhere that will attract birds and cats. I tend to put the trap in the shade of an oak tree during daylight hours so it cannot heat up and then release the inhabitants at twilight. In the interim, I carefully remove any specimens I wish to photograph and place them on suitable props.

Large Elephant hawk (Deilepilia elpenor)

Large Elephant hawk (Deilepilia elpenor)

 

small elephant hawk (Deilephila porcellus) a small colourful hawk larva feed on bedstraw (Galium) species. Podere Montecucco, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy MYN October 2013

small elephant hawk (Deilephila porcellus) a small colourful hawk larva feed on bedstraw (Galium) species. Podere Montecucco, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy MYN October 2013

Sometimes the moths are very active and you have to seize the opportunity. The striped Hawk moth was stationary until he gently tried to place it on a piece of bark – it then started whirring its wings ready for takeoff. I managed a few shots but then let it fly up into a tree. Obviously, the last thing any keen naturalist would want to do is to use a moth trap in such a manner as to reduce the local insect population.

Here are a couple more images obtained in past years in the garden at Podere Montecucco.

Convolvulus hawk (Herse convolvuli) on nicotiana,photographed at dusk in flight with phototrap trigger

Convolvulus hawk (Herse convolvuli) on nicotiana,photographed at dusk in flight with phototrap trigger

hummingbird hawk (Macroglossum stellaturum) in flight. Podere Montecucco, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

hummingbird hawk (Macroglossum stellaturum) in flight. Podere Montecucco, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

My home-made UV moth trap powered by a 125W mercury vapour lamp

 

A source of moth traps and accessories to build your own:

http://www.pwbelg.clara.net/mercury/index.html

 

© Paul Harcourt Davies 2015

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