Old lady moths

Posted: Wednesday 12 March 2014
by Richard Jones

Here we have a portrait of an old lady as a young caterpillar. I found it when we took down most of the ivy and climber from the slightly broken fence.

Here we have a portrait of an old lady as a young caterpillar. I found it when we took down most of the ivy and climber from the slightly broken fence. The old lady moth, Mormo maura, is a large, elegant, if sombre, dark brown and blackish-grey moth.
It over-winters as a small caterpillar, but will now continue feeding on various bushes, including blackthorn, sallow, birch and presumably ivy, until it becomes plump enough to pupate in June or July. A number of caterpillars are distinctive enough to be recognised to species, but many in this group (family Noctuidae) are just green or brown cylindrical eating machines, with little to distinguish them from one another. In this case, the conjoined black marks at the tail end, forming a white-margined belt seems to be a fairly constant character for Mormo.
As with all insects, the often overlooked larval stage is actually the most important part of the life cycle, and usually the longest lived. Most of the feeding, and certainly all of the growing is done as a caterpillar, maggot or grub. The adult is relatively ephemeral, hanging about just long enough to mate, disperse and lay a few eggs. I see the adult old lady moths, most years, of a warm summer evening, flapping headlong like tiny demented bats, trying to avoid the full-sized demented bats trying to eat them.
The admittedly slightly dowdy moth probably got its English name through a bit of everyday sexism back in the early 19th century. The scientific name is not much better; in Greek mythology, Mormo was some sort of wraith who bit or kidnapped children, or was a female vampire. Of course, this sort of thing would never happen nowadays, in this enlightened era.

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James Hickey 18/03/2014 at 12:48


Gardenmaiden 18/03/2014 at 12:54

Don't think so. We had one fly around the lounge on Sunday.

nutcutlet 18/03/2014 at 12:57

They don't usually survive the winter but this winter has been very mild. Perhaps we won't need to wait for the summer visitors

Richard Jones 18/03/2014 at 21:21

Hummingbird hawks are regular migrants, so their appearance has more to do with weather, climate and temperature in Europe and North Africa, as well as here. Received wisdom has it that they do not survive British winters, but...who knows these days. The likelihood is that the very mild winter we've had in the south of England probably means that some could quite easily have overwintered successfully here.

LouatLarches 19/03/2014 at 06:32

What could I grow to encourage Hummingbird moths or am I in the wrong part of the country to attract them? (600m up a mountain in Shropshire)