Red and black cinnabar moth with its wings open on a flowering plant

The cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae) is one of the many colourful and pleasingly patterned moths found in Britain

© Alison Day (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flickr

 

UK moths: nine of the most colourful and distinctive

Moths are often unfairly thought of as butterflies' drab cousins. But there are lots of wonderfully colourful species and plenty with dramatic patterns, including in the UK.

Whether you are a seasoned moth-spotter or you're winging it for the first time, here is a guide to nine vibrant, distinctive British moths to look out for on a summer walk.

Moths and butterflies are closely related insects in the order Lepidoptera, which is a Greek word meaning 'scaly wings'. But while butterflies tend to command adoration for their beauty, moths are often unfairly overlooked. Yet there is little difference between them.

Garden tiger moth

If you think moths are drab, think again - many are extremely eye-catching, such as this garden tiger moth

© R Maximiliane/Shutterstock.com

Alessandro Giusti, Lepidoptera Curator at the Museum, explains that brilliantly coloured moths are often day-flying species or those keen to display their distastefulness to predators.

In contrast, he says, 'The dull colours of nocturnal moths help camouflage them as they rest during the day.'

Moths' roles in nature

Moths, like all insects, provide vital ecological services, including as food sources for other organisms. Their predators include birds, mammals and spiders.

They are also important pollinators. Alessandro says, 'Moths pollinate a wide variety of plants, including wildflowers and some crops, as they search for nectar.'

What do moths eat?

Their food supply can be a good starting point when looking for moths and caterpillars, with each species preferring certain plants and flowers.

Alessandro says, 'More than 90% of moth caterpillars are vegetarian, eating leaves, roots, seeds and fruits.

'Not all moth species feed as adults, but those that do feed, do so on nectar, sap and sugary liquids from plants and fruits.'

Nine colourful and distinctive UK moths

Many of the species listed below can be spotted across most of Britain and Ireland. So why not see if you can identify a colourful moth or caterpillar in a garden or on a walk?

1. Elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor)

Elephant hawkmoth

Elephant hawkmoths have distinctive pink and olive-green colouring

© H Crisp (CC BY 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The elephant hawkmoth has unmistakable pink and olive-green wings. It is found in a variety of habitats across the UK and Ireland, including urban areas. 

Alessandro says, 'This moth is often found where rosebay willowherb is present, in places like grassland, hedgerows, heathland, sand dunes, woodland and gardens.'

Side view of an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar, showing its pink furry body and wing undersides

Side view of an elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor)

© Hammon jp (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Brownish-grey elephant hawkmoth caterpillar showing its distinctive eye-spots

An elephant hawkmoth caterpillar in a UK garden. These eye-catching larvae can grow to nearly 9cm long.

 © Pauk (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The moth's English name comes from the caterpillar's likeness to an elephant's trunk.

Alessandro adds, 'If you encounter the caterpillar it certainly raises curiosity. It is large with eye-marks on the first abdominal segments, which when threatened swell to resemble the head of a snake.'

You can spot the adult moth flying from dusk, feeding on the wing at plants like honeysuckle and other nectar-rich tubular flowers.

2. Hummingbird hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

Hummingbird hawkmoth hovering in front of a flower to feed

A hummingbird hawkmoth feeding with its long tubular mouth, called a proboscis

© Thomas Bresson (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr

This day-flying hawkmoth was mainly a migrant to the UK, but a very common one. Warmer weather had made its visits more frequent and now this species has a permanent presence.

Alessandro explains, 'In the last few years, warmer summers and milder conditions in the UK have led to an increase in hummingbird hawkmoth populations. In fact, it now breeds here and is considered a resident.

'These moths are a lovely fleeting sight, flying in sunshine and hovering in front of flowers, sipping nectar like a hummingbird.' 

Flowers they like to visit include aubrieta (often spelled aubretia), buddleia, viper's bugloss and red valerian. In 2019, Thomas Easterbrook's photo of a hummingbird hawkmoth sipping from a salvia flower won the 10 years and under category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

The moth lives in a variety of habitats, including coastal areas, open expanses in woodland, gardens and other urban environments. You can spot it flying from May to September, and occasionally at other times of year.

3. Garden tiger moth (Arctia caja)

Garden tiger moth with its wings open

A garden tiger moth showing its gaudy hindwings. The species is widely distributed across the UK, but numbers are falling, possibly due to weed spraying and the tidying of hedgerows.

© Temple of Mara (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Two very hairy garden tiger moth caterpillars

Garden tiger moth caterpillars are called woolly bears. You might spot them moving quickly across bare ground.

© Baykedevries (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL) via Wikimedia Commons

The garden tiger moth is relatively common in the UK, although it has declined since the 1980s. It has unmistakable brown blotches on its white forewings and blue-black spots on its orange hindwings.

Alessandro says, 'The pattern on the wings is variable and no two garden tiger moths are exactly alike - even the two wings of an individual can be different. The Museum's collections have specimens of this moth with all sorts of variations.'

Garden tiger moths have a flair for deterring predators. Alessandro explains, 'If disturbed, the moth displays its gaudy hindwings and can produce yellow fluid from behind its head.'

The hairy larvae of garden tiger moths are called woolly bears and can be seen from August until June. They eat a variety of low-growing garden plants.

The adults fly in July and August. 'They regularly visit light traps in gardens and open spaces,' adds Alessandro.

4. Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

Jersey tiger moth feeding on a flower, with its orange hindwings visible

See if you can spot a Jersey tiger moth if you are in London - it is thriving here. This one was in the Museum's Wildlife Garden.

The Jersey tiger is another unmistakable tiger moth which flies from mid-July to early September during warm days, visiting plants like buddleia to feed on nectar.

Alessandro says the species is doing well and its distribution is increasing.

Jersey tiger moth with closed wings on a window

A Jersey tiger moth resting with closed wings on the window of a restaurant in Crystal Palace, London

© Lisa Hendry

Underside of a Jersey tiger moth with closed wings on a window

Underside of the same Jersey tiger moth, photographed from inside the restaurant

© Lisa Hendry

'This moth was largely restricted in Devon and the Channel Islands until the 1990s.

'It now seems to be expanding its range quite quickly. There is a thriving population in London, but whether this is due to natural range expansion or the result of accidental introduction is unclear.'

5. Scarlet tiger moth (Callimorpha dominula)

A scarlet tiger moth on a tree trunk with the flash of extra colour from its hindwings on show

© Ilia Ustyantsev (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

In the same family as the Jersey tiger, the scarlet tiger has a metallic green-black colouring with white and yellowish spots, and bright red (or very occasionally yellow) hindwings. 

This moth occurs mainly in the southwest of England and Wales, with isolated populations in Kent. It lives in wetland and coastal habitats, including near fens, rivers, floodplains and rocky cliffs.

Alessandro adds, 'This rather exotic-looking moth can also be found in gardens.

'It flies both in sunshine, particularly in the late afternoon and early evening, and at night.'

Black and orange-coloured underside of a scarlet tiger moth clinging to a blade of grass

Colourful underside of a scarlet tiger moth

© Charles J Sharp, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Black, yellow and white caterpillar of a scarlet tiger moth

Scarlet tiger moth caterpillars feed on plants such as common comfrey and, as they grow larger, bramble and honeysuckle

© Hectonichus (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

6. Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

The cinnabar moth is named after a red mineral because of its striking colouring.

Alessandro says, 'This lovely red and dark moth flies mainly at night but it can also be seen on sunny days from May to early August if disturbed.

'It particularly likes well-drained, rabbit-grazed grassland, but is found in gardens and woods too.'

A red and black cinnabar moth with its wings wide open

A cinnabar moth

© Charles J Sharp, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

A black and yellow cinnabar moth caterpillar

A cinnabar caterpillar photographed in Dorset, UK. Cinnabar larvae are often spotted on ragwort, which is one of their foodplants.

© Ian Kirk (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Alessandro adds, 'The caterpillar is very distinctive with a yellow and black-ringed body. It feeds gregariously on common ragwort and other related plants.'

The species is common in most of England, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It is less common in Scotland and northern England, and is confined mainly to coastal areas.

7. Six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae)

Multiple six-burnet moths crammed onto a flower

Several six-spot burnet moths on a single flowerhead

© Peter O'Connor (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

The six-spot burnet is the most common British burnet moth and the only species with six red spots on each forewing.

According to Alessandro, though, 'Some of its spots can be fused, making it trickier to identify.

'You can see this moth flying during the day from June to August in flowery grassland, woodland and grassy coastal habitats. It lives all over the UK, even in the Outer Hebrides.' 

Adult six-spot burnets are attracted to a variety of flowers including thistles, knapweeds and scabious.

8. Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia)

The emperor moth is from a family of about 2,000 species - the Saturniidae - but is the only one that lives in the UK.

A male emperor moth with its wings open to display four eye-spots

The emperor moth is the only species from the Saturniidae family found in Britain. This individual is a male.

© Patrick Clement (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

An emperor moth caterpillar, which is green with yellow spots

Emperor moth caterpillars feed on many plants, including heather, hawthorn, bramble and various willows and birches

© Alastair Rae (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

You can find emperor moths in most parts of Britain, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Orkney, the Hebrides and Ireland.

Female emperor moth with its wings open to reveal eye-spots

Both the male emperor moth and the paler female, pictured, have dramatic eye-spots

© Patrick Clement (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

The species likes heathland, moorland, bogs, hedgerows and open scrubby places. Occasionally it can be spotted in gardens.

Alessandro says, 'Male emperor moths fly during the day in sunshine, using feathered antennae to smell out the pheromones produced by females.

'The larger and paler females are nocturnal and are occasionally attracted to light.'

9. Lunar hornet moth (Sesia bembeciformis)

The lunar hornet moth belongs to the family of clearwing moths (Sesiidae family). Active by day, it mimics wasps, with transparent wings and a black- and yellow-striped body.

There are 16 species of clearwings in the UK out of more than 1,000 worldwide.

The lunar hornet moth is the most widespread clearwing in Britain and Ireland, but it is less common in Scotland and the Channel Islands. 

A wasp-like lunar hornet moth

Lunar hornet moths mimic wasps. A black head and shoulders and a bright yellow collar distinguish them from the similar, but smaller, hornet moth.

© Ian Kimber (CC BY-SA 2.5) via Wikimedia Commons

Alessandro says, 'Lunar hornet moths are very elusive, flying in July and August but rarely seen.

'They frequent fens, open woodland, heaths and scrubby places, laying their eggs on the bark of the larval foodplants such as goat willow, grey willow and poplars.

'When they hatch, the caterpillars burrow into the trees, feeding on the lower trunk and upper roots.'

Your best chance of spotting this moth in the UK might be finding freshly emerged adults on willow trunks on summer mornings.

Help identifying moths 

If you have access to a garden or open space, why not build a light trap and see which insects come to visit?

There are lots of great resources to help you identify moths, including the Museum's own identification services and handy guides provided by UK moths and Butterfly Conservation.

The cover of the Moths book by two Museum scientists

Moths by David C Lees and Alberto Zilli

Books by Museum scientists

If you'd like to learn more about moths and other insects, here are a couple of great places to start:

Moths is an accessible introduction to the stunning diversity, life habits and evolution of moths. You can buy the book from the Museum Shop.

Interesting Insects showcases weird, wonderful and surprisingly beautiful insects from the Museum's collection. It is available from Waterstones and Amazon.

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