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Plume moths

Posted: Friday 27 June 2014
by Kate Bradbury

I visited my mum last weekend. On arrival we exchanged pleasantries, she asked me to fix the bathroom tap, and then she got down to business: “Now. I saw a butterfly the other day. It was pinkish, and had thin wings.”


I visited my mum last weekend. On arrival we exchanged pleasantries, she asked me to fix the bathroom tap, and then she got down to business: “Now. I saw a butterfly the other day. It was pinkish, and had thin wings.”

I spent a day thinking about the thin-winged, pinkish butterfly, and concluded it could have only been a plume moth. I suppose you could describe their wings as ‘thin’. Plume moths have divided wings, which comprise several ‘fingers’, each of which is finely feathered, or plumed. When at rest, most species roll their wings up tightly and hold them at right-angles to their body, forming a T-shape. My mum’s plume moth was flying, apparently, so I’m not sure how thin the wings appeared to be. Most plume moths are nocturnal, emerging at dusk, so she must have disturbed this one. It wasn’t feeding on anything, it was just flying very fast, said my mum.

I showed mum some photos of plume moths and she was happy with the identification. But which one did she see? One of the most common in Britain is the common plume, Emmelina monodactyla. Also known as the bindweed plume or the morning glory plume, it feeds mostly on bindweed (Convulvulus), and occasionally morning glory (Ipomoea). But, rather than pinkish, it’s a pale brown.

Then there’s the lovely white plume moth, Pterophorus pentadactyla (pictured above). One of the largest and most distinctive species, it’s a gorgeous ghostly white and has very deeply divided (thin?) wings. It’s common in gardens and the caterpillars also feed on bindweed. Perhaps it was flying in a certain light or near a brightly coloured plant, which gave it the appearance of being pinkish. Or perhaps it was a different plume moth. Or perhaps my mum was seeing things.

There’s also the 20-plume moth, Alucita hexadactyla, which feeds on honeysuckle. This species breeds in my garden in London, and has lovely pink caterpillars. But the adult is brown.

I wonder if it was Amblyptilia acanthadactyla, which feeds on hedge woundwort, cranesbills and cultivated geraniums (of which my mum has many). It has become more common in gardens in recent years and could, at a push, be described as ‘pinkish’, but only – I suspect – if you looked at it very closely. So, even if we do see it again, I doubt we’d be able to identify it.

Still, I fixed the bathroom tap.


Many thanks to Mark Parsons and Butterfly Conservation for kind permission to use their beautiful image of a white plume moth, Pterophorus pentadactyla.





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Talkback: Plume moths
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GreenGardenForum 28/06/2014 at 00:40

I've never heard of a plume moth before - what a ghostly, but fascinating looking creature.

oldchippy 28/06/2014 at 19:47

Girl after my our heart can mend taps and identify insects,when the back door is open at night with the kitchen light on we get lots of moths on the walls in the morning I can't tell what they are maybe I should get a book on insects.

Russell Tilling 27/07/2014 at 09:06

I love white plume moths. Unfortunately I think it's a higher priority to get rid of field bindweed which they use so I've carefully dug most of it out and only have a few left to do.