Moths and caterpillars

Posted: Thursday 8 December 2011
by Kate Bradbury

I don’t really understand why moths get such a bad press. Well I do, a little. Some eat our clothes, others eat our crops...

Ruby the moth caterpillar, on a primrose leaf

I recently found a hibernating caterpillar in a box of plants I’d been sent for a photo shoot. A ‘woolly bear’ type, I suspected it was a garden tiger moth, but experts told me it was more likely to be a ruby tiger, buff ermine or white ermine (I was reassured the professionals weren’t entirely sure, and that I wasn’t too far off the mark). I’m hoping it’s a ruby tiger, I like the name.

I don’t really understand why moths get such a bad press. Well I do, a little. Some eat our clothes, others eat our crops and wax moths even eat our bumblebees. But of the 2500 odd species, most of them are just adorable. Who couldn’t love the garden tiger or the elephant hawk moth? Or the spotted burnets or the magnificent looking emperor?

Some caterpillars are quite adorable too. In summer I spotted a tiny one living in the head of a rudbeckia flower in my garden. It had created a tunnel in the flowerhead so it could wriggle out of sight of predators. I only saw it once; as soon as I got close it disappeared inside the flower. Amazing.

And then there's 'Ruby', pictured above. When I found her in the box of plants, I was worried that, in London, she would have no opportunities for breeding next summer. What if she was rare, or restricted to Hampshire, where the plants came from? I made her a nest of primrose leaves in a jam jar with holes punched in the lid, and squirrelled her away until I could find out more about her.

Happily, it turns out that any of the moths Ruby is likely to be, are all fairly widespread. This means she should have no problem finding a mate in Hackney, and I don’t have to take her back where she came from.

But I have kept her. I’m keen to know what type of moth she is (if she’s a she) and, since she’s hibernating, she should be happy enough until spring, when I will check her daily and then start feeding her leaves when she wakes up (these caterpillars are not fussy feeders, apparently).

I’ve transferred Ruby to my vacant bumblebee nest box, where it’s nice and dry, but cold enough not to disturb the sleeping grub. I can’t wait to see what she turns into.

If you would like to find out more about any of our 2500 species of moth, visit

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oldchippy 08/12/2011 at 22:10

Kate you are a real softie,Old chippy

Diana Mead 09/12/2011 at 16:12

I love moths. Possibly a bit scary as they move so fast but so beautiful. I particularly like their ability to disguise themselves and keep perfectly still

Kate Bradbury 11/12/2011 at 16:27

@oldchippy I know, but what can you do?

@2 I love their ability to disguise thmeselves too. So clever!


oldchippy 14/12/2011 at 18:43

Hi Kate,with out bird's bee's and bug's our garden's would be just wild space's with nothing growing and not much to look at,It is up to us gardener's to teach people how to look after our environment by showing the way,We all need wild life as much as they need us(feeding bird's etc),Keep up the good work,I think gardening should be thought at school.

Kate Bradbury 29/12/2011 at 08:30

@oldchippy I agree. The more wildlife the better, in my book