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It’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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