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Plume moths

by Richard Jones

On Monday I was stopped by one of the teachers at six-year-old's school and shown an image of a brightly coloured moth on his phone.

The twenty-plume moth, Alucita hexadactylaIt’s always fascinating, and stimulating, when people ask me to identify insects they’ve found in their gardens. On Monday I was stopped by one of the teachers at six-year-old’s school and shown an image of a brightly coloured moth on his phone. I couldn’t resist the urge to get six-year-old to perform so asked him if he could identify it? Yes he could - Jersey tiger moth. Smug points all round. They really are all over the place in south-east London now, and we regularly see them flapping about during the day, or resting quite brazenly on anything they fancy.

Then I was asked about a peculiar pale stick-insect-like creature for Radio 4’s Home Planet programme. It was a plume moth. These are lovely insects, very strange with their furled wings, stilt-like legs and stiff T-shaped stance. I think it’s most likely the common bindweed plume, Emmelina monodactyla. I’ve got the tiny caterpillars chewing the bindweed leaves in my garden.

There are about 40 UK plume-moth species, but as my colleague on the show pointed out, they are considered ‘micro’ moths, so are not included in many of the popular identification guides on the market, which really only cater for the ‘macro’ moths. The distinctions between micro and macro are far more subtle than just size, and are perhaps even more artificial than any distinctions between moth and butterfly.

One of my favourites is the twenty-plume moth, Alucita hexadactyla (pictured above). Although in a different family from the other plumes, it has the same feathery wing formation. Its larvae feed on honeysuckle and we get them resting on the fence, fanning out their split wings in that characteristic delta or semicircle spread. As the scientific name suggests, each of the moth’s four wings is split into six fingers. Now we can do the maths and discover that whoever gave this insect its English name could not count very well. It has 24 plumes, not 20.

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Gardeners' World Web User 21/07/2011 at 09:25

I'm hoping someone will buy me a moth trap for Christmas Richard, or at least the electrics so I can make one. We get loads of moths and caterpillars in our garden but I can never identify them...

Gardeners' World Web User 22/07/2011 at 07:57

I found a beautiful moth in my greenhouse yesterday, unfortunately it was dead which made me feel so sad because it was so lovely. After reading you blog Richard I am going to take a little more interest in moths, they are just as lovely as the butterfly.

Gardeners' World Web User 29/07/2011 at 09:36

For anyone interested in I.D'ing moths. Look at these web sites for the answers: I trap every week for the G.M.S -garden Moth Survey. If you get your own trap, you will be hooked for life. Happy mothing!

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:43

I have got white slugs in my garden