Wild Words: Moth in a mink coat

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1
NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

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For the record, if you had asked me 10 years ago what the difference was between a carrion crow and a raven I would not have been able to tell you.

Five years ago the only bird I could identify with any confidence was a robin. Two years ago tormentil, celandine, coltsfoot were – to me – all a variation on buttercups and dandelions. I am not an expert on wildlife.

What I am though is interested; what I do is look. When I walk through the fields and wood by the house, I spend most of my time watching the ground around my feet.

Over the years I have become more familiar with what I might see there, recognising leaf shapes that tell me what the next show of wildflowers might be, or knowing when to expect the spittle bugs or the grasshoppers. This wee guy (pictured) was a surprise. No clue what he was, and I knew I had not seen him before.

I put a request for ID out on Twitter, and in true Twitter fashion it was initially identified as ‘a bee in a mink coat’ and a ‘fluffy bum cutie pie’.

Then specialist Brigit Strawbridge Howard, author of Dancing with Bees, spotted it and a flurry of tweets began. Lots of entomologists getting very excited over what they confirmed was a Narrow-Bordered Bee Hawk-moth. So, a moth in a mink coat, in fact.

The Narrow-Bordered Bee Hawk-moth. Photograph: Tim Melling/Butterfly Conservation

Butterfly Conservation Scotland say that ‘the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth is a day-flying moth that closely resembles a bumblebee.

‘It is on the wing from mid-May to early July and can be found on moorlands, grasslands and open woodlands where its caterpillar’s sole food plant, devil’s-bit scabious, grows in abundant patches.’

The general Twitter excitement stemmed from this moth’s relative rarity in England. Mike Taylor from the Highland Biological Recording Group confirmed that it is now only found in a few parts of the south and south west.

But north of the border this posh moth has a stronger foothold, and Mike has noticed an increase in the number of records being submitted to HBRG and the National Moth Recording Scheme over the past few years.

He said: ‘Much of the range reduction further south is thought to be due to habitat change with urbanisation and intensification of farmland being likely factors, and whilst not proven may also be why the species is not suffering the same problem in Scotland.’

Devil’s-bit scabious (whose name I also only learned in recent years) covered the ground between a storage yard and the house towards the end of last summer.

It is a patch of ground that, from a crofting point of view, probably looks fairly neglected – however one species’ neglect is another species’ boon.

While I may have noticed the flowers, somewhere in amongst the round purple flower heads was a fat green caterpillar, unrecorded, unnoticed, but growing a mink coat all the same.