A collection of British moths
You'd never see that now: two boys in duffle coats, walking the streets with nets and jars. But I'm glad I was allowed because for me it began a fascination with travelling at night that I love still. There's a tension to travelling in the dark, an alertness that's akin to what nocturnal prey must feel - for though it was me that was hunting the moths, I've always felt more like the hunted.
Perhaps that's why we caught so few. But we did learn a lot about their behaviour: how they spiralled, which would fall to ground, what conditions were best and when not to go at all. In August there'd be hundreds of yellow underwings, once we caught an elephant hawkmoth, and we discovered larvae of the willow hawkmoth nocturnally feeding night in the trees of Belsay Gardens. We even smeared rum-laced treacle on the trees to see what would be feeding next morning.
There are 800 species of larger moths in the UK, about 2400 if you include the 'micros' - this compares to about 60 butterflies, and explains why most lepidopterists soon turn to the night. And you'd be wrong if you thought moths were all dull and brown - indeed, the bigger ones are more spectacular than butterflies - papillon de nuit the French call them, and they are right. They are right too, in that there's no absolute distinction from butterflies - taxonomically, they are all of one lineage.
By the time I was a teenager I had a moth trap - its actinic tube emitted an ultraviolet glow that would attract hundreds more than a street lamp. It's not the brightness to our eyes that matters, but the colour on the light spectrum - have you noticed there are much fewer moths around lampposts these days? That's because most street lamps are now yellow, one of the least phototactic colours to insects. You'll see more moths in your headlights than you would by walking the streets.
Moths are possibly the most ignored of the major creatures we could easily observe. Most of us get a thrill in recognising wild mammals - (though as a challenge, see if you can name twenty different British wild ones without getting into subspecies; it's much harder than you think) - birding is hugely popular; plants and trees (ok, not creatures, but you know what I mean) too. There are more beetles than moths but the identification is tortuous and frankly they are hard to find - similar problems apply to spiders, wasps and ants. Yet in most gardens, you could almost certainly record a hundred moths; they'd be there most of the year too, feeding and breeding and flying to your window - butterflies of the night.