Butterfly Conservation - saving butterflies, moths and their habitats
Butterfly Conservation
saving butterflies, moths and their habitats
   Sussex Branch


Sussex Butterfly Conservation's "Beginners' Guide to Mothing"

(AKA "Helping novice mothers get into the habit")



Use these hyperlinks to jump to the section you want to find out about:

1. Why should you become a moth-er?

2. What equipment do you need?

3. When and where should you put the trap out?

4. What will you catch?

5. How to identify moths?

6. What do I do with the moths once I’ve caught and identified them?

7. What books should you get?

8. Where else can you get more information?

9. What can you then do with your records? 




1. Why should you become a moth-er?


Since going live with my first moth trap in April, I have experienced immense satisfaction. It is the one thing now guaranteed to get me out of bed in the mornings and the thrill of finding something new is ever present. My interest has primarily been driven by my passion for digital photography and I have not been disappointed. There have even been a couple of rarities which turned up in the garden. (Paul Lister)


Remember the excitement of Christmas Days in the past when you were a child? Getting up way too early, rushing downstairs in your pyjamas. Then reaching into a sack stuffed with untold surprises; Action Men, Barbie Dolls, Evil Knievel Stunt Bike, Cup and Ball (delete according to age). Well you can recreate the excitement and surprises of Christmas Day every day with your very own MOTH TRAP. You’ll spring from bed at 5am, stand proudly in the garden in your pyjamas/nightie and your heart will leap with excitement as you reach into your trap and pull out….well that’s the fun, there could be anything lurking in there! A new species for your garden? A new species for Sussex? A new species for Britain? A new species to science? Hmmm, Blencowe’s Hawkmoth. Now I like the sound of that……(Michael Blencowe)


I have been mothing since 2005, almost wholly in my tiny suburban garden in Peacehaven, and I started because I wanted to understand more about gardening for wildlife. What amazes me is just how many moth species come into a garden, including big ones, colourful ones, ones that look like twigs, migrants... Oh, and there’s the ‘surprise surprise’ side to mothing too – each trap opened up is a dip into the unknown! (Adrian Thomas)


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National Moth Night 2007 (Michael Blencowe)


2. What equipment do you need?


Light bulb:

The two main types of lightbulb used are Actinic and MV (mercury vapour) (although there are other bulbs favoured by some ‘mothers’). There are pros and cons to both:

ACTINIC: Strip lights which give off lower light levels. This won’t disturb your neighbours but won’t attract as many moths as an MV. However, do you really want 100+ moths to identify when you’re just starting out? 12V actinics can also be run off batteries making the trap portable. The bulbs run cold so do not shatter as readily as MV in the rain.

MV. Bright. Very bright. Be prepared for angry neighbours, confused ravers, UFO fanatics and the police paying you a visit. But also be prepared for a lot of moths. A wide range of bulbs are available from: http://www.angleps.com/ (e.g 125V MV bulb 9:50) http://www.pwbelg.clara.net/mercury/index.html (e.g 125 MV bulb 9) http://www.bltdirect.com/ (e.g 125V MV bulb 6.85) (Michael Blencowe)


If you live in a town, don't use a mercury vapour lamp. You will light up the area like the main runway at Gatwick and your neighbours will call the police. (Paul Lister)


Electrical bits:

For some crazy reason you can’t just plug a MV or ACTINIC bulb into the mains. You’ll need a ‘choke’ unit. If you are an electrician you’re laughing. Otherwise send off for these units all ready set up in their waterproof housing from:



You’ll need a lightbulb holder and an extension cable but these two suppliers will also sell you the full electrics / bulb / cable kit. (Michael Blencowe)


You can actually get an MV bulb that has the ' choke' in its base. This means that you do not need to have a choke and you can simply plug the bulb into the mains. They are called "Self Ballasted". You can get them from Lamp Specs. Try http://www.lampspecs.co.uk/Light-Bulbs-Tubes/Mercury-Self-Ballasted (Simon Curson)


A box to put it all in:

I have a home-made trap powered by an eco-friendly 11W ultra-violet bulb (just like the domestic energy saving ones), held in a lamp fitting and taped to the inside of a funnel, which has had the narrow bit cut away to enlarge it a bit. This is then placed into a hole cut into the lid of a large clear plastic box. You will also need a long lead for the power. (Paul Lister)


All you need is a funnel to trap the moths and a box to keep ‘em in. There are plenty of variations on this theme but here are the main two and one I made up:

THE SKINNER TRAP: A wooden box of 4 sides which slot together (so are easy to transport) with sloping perspex in the trap to ‘funnel’ the moths in and 2 baffles to keep them there. Available online:

http://www.alanaecology.com/ with MV bulb and electrics 170; with actinic bulb and electrics 165

http://www.angleps.com a variety of options from 110 (full ‘Starters Kit’ including complete trap, electrics, bulb,book, pots, net 165) http://www.bioquip.net from 100 Or build your own Skinner trap;

print out instructions from http://www.angleps.com/moth_guid.pdf or http://www.atropos.info/gardenmoths.html …grab and hammer and off you go. I managed to (or rather my girlfriend’s Dad managed to) knock one together with some pieces of wood in the shed and a sheet of perspex from B&Q following these instructions.


THE ROBINSON TRAP: One of the most popular traps is the round Robinson Trap (basically a big pot with a Perspex collar supporting a funnel). These purpose-built traps work well and retain a good number of moths which can be inspected through the perspex collar, but they cost a small fortune. www.angleps.com 290

www.bioquip.net 250

www.watdon.com 295

www.alanaecology.com 395 (!)


THE BLENCOWE MOTHMATIC 2000 TRAP Here’s proof that any idiot can make his/her own moth trap: I made my own. I bought a plastic crate with a lid from B&Q (10). Cut a hole in the lid and stuck in an upside-down lamp shade (50p from a charity shop). I taped it up to make it all secure (tape 2) and that was it. The MV bulb and electrics (choke, fitting, cables) were the only real expense bought online (55). OK, so my trap doesn’t look like much (the bunny ears are baffles by the way and also cleverly support the rain cover; a transparent plant pot base 3.95) but this big MV trap is regularly stuffed with more moths than I can comfortable identify in one sitting. The point is: if you have a Sunday afternoon spare (and a big roll of sticky tape) you can put together a trap that will work just as well as any you can buy online. The round Robinson trap, the slot-together Skinner trap and my Blue Peter style Mothmatic 2000. And with the 200 you saved you can treat yourself to some of the other essential bits and pieces below. Check out more DIY moth trap tips at:




(Michael Blencowe)


Egg boxes to put in the trap:

Moths which fly into the trap are further contained by the eggboxes placed within and will snuggle up in the dark corners they provide. You’ll need about 20 eggbox bases. That’s 120 eggs. And that’s one mighty big omelette. So start saving the bumpy eggbox bases now while you plan on getting the trap set up. TIP: Ask around cafes or farm shops for those egg trays that held loads of eggs. (Michael Blencowe)


If you can get hold of the larger egg trays from a farm shop etc, then try leaning seevral around the immediate outside of the trap. Many moths that would have flown around the trap, but not gone inside will settle on and under the egg trays leaning against the trap! (Simon Curson)


Whatever you do stack your empty egg boxes properly, or you may catch nothing!! (Paul Lister)


I solved my lack-of-egg-box problem - in many shops and garden centres, you can buy thin black plastic sheets of 'seed-starters' in all shapes and sizes. They seem to work just as well as egg boxes. (Jim Steedman)


A big white sheet

As some moths will land short of the light you will need to place your trap on a sheet so you can see them (and avoid stepping on them). If you can’t ‘borrow’ one from the linen cupboard then a charity shop should have one for a pound. Remember: The first rule of Moth Trap: Never stand on the white sheet. (Michael Blencowe)



When you open the trap in the morning, a few moths will fly out and off. These will be the really rare ones. You will then be left however with a lot of torpid moths for you to identify. You will need a lot of pots to collect your moths so you can study them away from the trap. This is where it would be handy to be married to a nurse or someone who works in a lab who can sneak a few pots out each day in their white lab jacket. I’ve shopped around and they seem cheapest here:


with 25 pots for 7.50 or 100 for 22 but all the moth trap suppliers above also stock a variety of pots. (Michael Blencowe)


Electrical bits -



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From bottom-left, anticlockwise: The Robinson, the Skinner and the Blencowe 'here's one I made earlier' Mothmatic 2000 (Michael Blencowe)


3. When and where should you put the trap out?


Try to leave the light on all night, so protect it from heavy dew or rain. Just inside my greenhouse door works a treat, but beware the spider webs. Rescue all moths that become entangled. The greenhouse also provides a great attraction for moths to hide out in when it rains and rainy nights have been some of the best times for me. Check it out before you go to bed because there may be a lot of moths outside the trap. Buy yourself a good flash-light, to which moths will also be attracted. (Paul Lister)


The great thing about moth trapping is it will turn your back garden (no matter how big) into an important nature reserve; and one you can enjoy all year ‘round. Moths are active in every month of the year and the ‘moth menu’ changes from week to week; with new species being caught in the trap according to flight season. No two traps are the same! You can sit and watch your peanut feeder all day and just see a few blue tits and a squirrel but I guarantee you will be amazed at the number and variety of moths that have been fluttering around your gnomes and begonias every evening. You will soon be able to compile quite a sizeable checklist and everyone has the chance to find unusual species just a few yards from their back room window. (Michael Blencowe)


I still haven’t worked out what makes for a good moth night or a bad one, but I go with the general premise that a warm overcast night, maybe with a bit of drizzle, is best. I’ve yet to have problems with birds picking off moths from around the trap at dawn, but cats are sometimes a problem, playing around the trap at night. I tend to trap from April through to October - with my Actinic, I seem to catch very little in winter. (Adrian Thomas)


One tip I particularly follow off the Angleps website is, because I have a garden which is not that large, not to trap every night - to give the moths time to feed. I also get trouble with bats - but I can't do much about that! (Mike Snelling)


In my (limited) experience there is no problem in going through the Robinson trap contents in the late afternoon - maybe the moths are slightly less sluggish than at breakfast, but seldom a problem to photograph. What I do is when I refill the bird feeders first thing in the morning I simply move the trap to somewhere cool and in continuous shade. I have found it is unwise to try going through the contents in the heat of the day when the moths may be livelier or leaving the trap in a warm place. (Jim Steedman)


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4. What will you catch?


Be patient and be prepared to suffer some frustration. It took a fortnight before anything came near my trap. I was on the point of giving up! Ignore stories of the pro mothers catching hundreds of moths in a single night. Just aim to get into double figures at first, as it will take you the rest of the morning just to id what you have caught. The maximum number of moths I have trapped in a single night has been 46, comprising 16 species. What has consistently surprised me is that even when the nightly catch was low, the number of different species was high and it was common to have, say, 10 moths in the trap, all different species. (Paul Lister)


In the first two years of trapping, my Peacehaven actinic caught over 100 species of macro moth. Year three, and the lifers continue to crop up regularly. You will also catch caddis flies, diving beetles, even hornets sometimes. (Adrian Thomas)


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Elephant Hawkmoth - a common garden species, but one you would never see without a trap (Adrian Thomas)



5. How to identify moths?


Be prepared to get some ids wrong. There is no shame in that. No-one will tell you it is easy! (Paul Lister)


Identifying moths is a steep learning curve, but stick with it. With each trap you will learn a few more moths. Don’t rush it. The day you stop learning will be the day it gets boring. (Michael Blencowe)


I thought moths were impossible to identify. During the first few traps, I’d flick endlessly backwards and forwards through the book, not knowing where to start. My lists included an unidentified tally which was longer than the tally of those identified. But what was heartening was how easy it was to identify some species. And gradually it all began to click into place. I still can only identify about three species of micro, but I don’t mind. One day I’ll give them a bash but for now I’m still learning plenty about the macros. (Adrian Thomas)


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Small Magpie, a common garden micro whose caterpillars feed on nettles, and which proves that not all micros are small or impossible to identify (Michael Blencowe)


6. What do you do with the moths once you’ve caught and identified them?


Don't pick them up in your hands; if they are active, place in a container and put in the fridge to calm them down and always release them unharmed. Remember, they are very fragile creatures. (Paul Lister)


Photograph them! Cheap digital cameras often have a fantastic macro setting (which must have been named in honour of moth photography!). I then leave them in the trap in a shady place away from birds for them to fly when they want to the next night. (Adrian Thomas)


I have to be very careful when I release the moths. Both my neighbours have been feeding birds for a long time now and very many birds are around the garden every day. This means I have to release the moths at dusk. (There are too many for me to transport away from the house) (Mike Snelling)


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7. What books should you get?


Waring's Field Guide to the Moths of GB&I is a good one: the images are all life size, which helps immensely. Then buy another book because even though you have a moth right in front of your eyes, you may still be unable to find a match. I have three books for id purposes and some images differ in each one. This really is where the frustration can kick in! (Paul Lister)


Undoubtably the book that has opened up moths to a wider audience is Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, with superb illustrations by Richard Lewington (BWP: 29.95). This book shows the moths life size in natural poses (so you can place your potted moth over the picture; SNAP!). This book was reissued in 2007 as The Concise Field Guide to the moths of Great Britain and Ireland (BWP: 12.95) in a outdoor-friendly plastic sleeve but with limited text. Still a great book but I would advise paying the extra for the BIG version which has more i.d details and informs you of possible confusion species.

Before Waring/Townsend there was Moths of the British Isles by Bernard Skinner. (Viking: 50 but hard to track down). Another great book but for many the pinned, posed moths are harder to compare to the specimen in the pot in front of you.

Beyond that British and Irish Pug Moths by Riley & Prior (Harley Books: 30) is a very in-depth guide to the most difficult macro group to identify: The Pugs. British Pyralid Moths by Barry Goater (Harley Books: 22.50) is a great starting point for the micro moths; many moths in the pyralidae family being bigger than macro moths.

Oh, and one more book for your Christmas list; Enjoying Moths by Roy Leverton (T & AD Poyser; 30). It’s a great introduction to all the whats, hows and whys and a great read. And also everyone should have a book called Enjoying Moths on their bookcase. (Michael Blencowe)


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Mothing paraphernalia (Michael Blencowe)


8. Where else can you get more information?


Websites The internet has a number of resources which will help you get started:

http://www.sussex-butterflies.org.uk/species.html Our very own moth gallery will show you what species you are likely to encounter in Sussex. Start snapping and sending in your own pictures!

www.ukmoths.org.uk Lots of pictures of lots of species all in taxonomic order with accompanying information

http://www.suffolkmoths.org.uk/cgi-bin/flyingTonight.cgi I know it’s all about Suffolk, but we’re not that far away. This page lists the species of moth most likely to appear in your trap during every week of the year. It’s spookily accurate at times and if you can acquaint yourself with ‘This weeks Top 10’ before you open the trap you’ll find it will save you time thumbing through the book. So it’s like cheating basically. (Michael Blencowe) [Quick 'health warning' on the Suffolk site from Paul Lister: Exercise care with interpreting their records as there may be a number of errors on their site (eg Lesser Yellow Underwings vs Lunar Yellow Underwings). It is a good starting point, but always verify your records!]


www.angleps.com contains a good guide to moth trapping. In it there are several good tips. (Mike Snelling)


Sussex Moth Group Your next step is to join the SMG. The group has regular field meetings throughout the year across Sussex giving members the chance to see a wide range of species and learn valuable ID tips. The four indoor meetings a year are another chance to share expertise as is their internet chat group where you can post your ‘not sure’ photos for confirmation. All this and two newsletters as well as access to the groups traps (ideal if you want to ‘try before you buy’) for the bargain price of 5 a year.

For more information and a downloadable application form: http://www.sussex-butterflies.org.uk/SMG/SMGhome.html (Michael Blencowe)


Best advice is to attend one of the workshops I teach for the Sussex Wildlife Trust!! (a tongue-in-cheek Sarah Patton!)


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9. What can you then do with your records?


Send your highlights into the website, of course! (Webmaster)


Submit them to the County Moth Recorder, Colin Pratt, in the autumn (Paul Lister)


I would recommend typing them into something like Mapmate, or a spreadsheet and e-mailing them to the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre, (or you can use the Species Recorder software on their website) (Jim Steedman)


By becoming involved in nationwide moth recording schemes you can help contribute to our knowledge of moth populations, distributions and phenology. So if the neighbours complain just tell them you’re doing some important scientific research. They’ll thank you one day. To get involved check out:



http://www.mothcount.brc.ac.uk/ (Michael Blencowe)


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