Gateway to the Classics: Insect Life by Arabella B. Buckley
Insect Life by  Arabella B. Buckley

Familiar Moths

When Moths creep out of their cases they no longer do us any harm. They spread their wings and fly about sipping honey from the flowers. Their strong jaws have almost disappeared, and feathery lips take their place. Their inner jaws have grown very long, and are rolled together into a long double tube (p. 17)—very like a tiny elephant's trunk. When the insect is not using this trunk it is rolled up under its lip, but when it wants to reach the honey in the flowers it unrolls the trunk and thrusts it into the blossoms.

In the early morning, or evening in August, you may see the Privet Hawk-moth (1, p. 20) with its beautiful rose-coloured wings striped with black, thrusting its head into the honeysuckle in the hedge. Or the large brown Humming-bird moth may be hovering in the sunshine over a bed of flowers in the garden, or sucking honey out of the deep flowers of the evening primrose. You may know it partly by the humming noise it makes with its wings, and partly because it does not settle on the flowers, but sucks as it flies.

Then there is the Death's-head Hawk-moth, which is the largest moth in England, and has this curious name because the grey marks on the back of its thorax are something like a skull. It has brown front wings, and yellow hind wings, with dark bands across them, and its feelers and trunk are very short. You may find it, if you look out after sunset in the autumn, fluttering over the hedge, for it is not nearly so rare as people think, only it always flies by night.


Head of a Moth

If you get one of these big moths you will be surprised to see how different it is from the caterpillar out of which it grows. The six legs are still there on the three rings of the thorax, but there are four splendid wings above them. These wings are made of very fine transparent skin, and are covered all over with scales, which are arranged like tiles on a roof. However carefully you take hold of a moth or a butterfly you will always find some fine dust left on your fingers. Each grain of this dust is a lovely scale, and it is these which give the moth its beautiful colours. Moths and butterflies are called Lepidoptera, because this word means "scale-winged." The caterpillar had six small eyes, so tiny that we did not notice them. The moth has these still, but it has besides two glorious globes (e, p. 17) on each side of its head, cut into hundreds of little windows, so that the moth can look every way, although the eyes do not move. The eyes of the Death's-head moth shine like red lamps in the dark night.



The moth is plainly divided into the three parts. Its hind body is oval and pointed, its broad front body carries its legs and wings, and its head carries the big eyes (e), the delicate feelers, and the sucking trunk (p.17). The feelers or antennæ of moths are broad in the middle and pointed at the end, and they have tiny feathers on them. By this you may know moths from butterflies. For the antennæ of butterflies are nearly always round and thick at the ends like a club and have no feathers on them.


Another difference between them is, that butterflies fold their wings upwards over their backs so that the upper side of the wings touch each other, while moths lay theirs down on their backs like a roof on a house.

One common moth you may find is the Goat-moth. It has a short body and brownish white wings with wavy black lines on them. You will find it resting on the leaves of the willow or poplar. It does not fly about much, for it has no trunk, and does not eat any food during its short moth life. It only wants to find a place on which to lay its eggs, which will hatch into a naked red grub. This grub will bore its way into the tree and live there for years, eating the wood.


Six-Spot Burnet Moth with its Caterpillar and Cocoon

Many moth grubs live inside trunks and branches. If you look over the currant bushes on a hot summer's day you will often find a pretty little moth with a narrow yellow and black body, thin legs, long feelers and clear transparent wings, very unlike most moths. This is one of the Clearwing-moths (5, Plate, p. 20), which have scales round the edge of their wings only. It is so lazy that you will easily catch it, and it looks so like a gnat that it is called the Gnat Clearwing. This moth lays its eggs in the twigs of the currant bushes, and its little yellow caterpillar, with a black line on its back, eats its way into the pith of the twigs. You should always clear away the dead or faded twigs on the currant bushes, for fear these caterpillars should be in them.

Another moth which you may find flying in the bright sunshine is of a dark blue-green colour, with six bright crimson spots on its wings. It is the Six-spot Burnet-moth, whose cocoons you may find in May fastened on the blades of long grass in the meadow. By August the moth is out and flits from flower to flower.

There is one more moth which you will like to know, because its caterpillar is the Woolly Bear, or Hairy Man, which curls itself up in a ball when you pick it up. It is very fond of feeding on the lettuces and strawberries, and when it is ready to change it bites off its long hairs and weaves them into its cocoon. When the moth comes out it runs about the flower beds in the evening and does not fly very high. But everyone knows it as the Tiger-moth (4, p. 20), for it is the grandest moth we have. Its front wings are cream coloured with wavy brown stripes on them. The hind ones are bright scarlet spotted with black. Its thorax has a bright red band on it, and its abdomen is scarlet with black bars. If you can find a Woolly Bear in the early summer and keep it in a box with a piece of wire over it and give it plenty of dead nettles to eat you may see its cocoon and the grand Tiger-moth which comes out of it.

Try to find a Hawk-moth, a Clearwing-moth, a Tiger-moth, and the cocoon of the Burnet-moth. Bring in caterpillars and cocoons, when you can find them, always with a piece of the plant on which they feed.

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