Season’s greetings!

Hello all! With Christmas, New Year, Hanukkah, and the Royal Ent Soc student essay deadline all over for another year, we would like to wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2020, especially for our 6-legged friends. We have been hard at work writing up assignments and experiments, ready to head back to lectures. We finished our year with a course Christmas party which was the perfect way to unwind after our modules!

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Exciting news! One of our cohort (Amy) ventured to Crewe in December to deliver a talk on pollinators. Below is a beautiful account of her talk: “The Terrifying Freedom of First Time Public Speaking”.

Picture this, you get an e-mail from a friend that studies abroad, someone has got in contact with her to do a talk about pollinators and insects at an open climate change panel. Can you take my place? She says. The first thought here is always “OH GOD NO I CAN’T SPEAK….IN FRONT….OF PEOPLE…..can I? NOPE I can’t”. You frantically message your closest friends:

“IVE JUST BEEN ASKED TO DO A POLLINATOR TALK IN FRONT OF 9 MILLION PEOPLE DO YOU THINK I SHOULD I GO FOR IT? WHAT IF I CAN’T? CAN I? WHAT DO YOU THINK?”

In which the reply is subsequently something along the lines of:

“OF COURSE YOU SHOULD! Firstly, you’re so dramatic, it definitely is not 9 million people you’ll be talking to and secondly, you know your stuff! You love insects!” quickly followed by a lot of “You go girl, you should do this, it’ll be great for you!”

I was in this situation a couple of weeks back, and I decided to accept. There was almost definitely the tossing and turning the night before, the hot sweaty palms on the train to the venue…and the constant reading of my power point making sure I’ve got the right stuff in my head. I was on my way to Crewe to talk on a panel of amazing women from all aspects of life, from the leader of the green party in that area, to an extinction rebellion activist…there was a lot of pressure to do well, not in everyone else’s eyes but in my own. The lead up to the talk was very humbling, I got to talk to all the women I’d be standing alongside, and they put my mind at ease!

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The venue and audience!

“Are you nervous?” – YES IM NERVOUS OH GOD, IM SO NERVOUS – “I’m a little nervous, this is my first talk in front of this many people” – “OH, don’t worry! In science and climate, you have to talk to people, gotta get that ball rolling, this is the right place for you”

The venue was a relaxed yoga centre (No shoes allowed, and I highly recommend where you can to practice without shoes, there’s a lot of freedom and grounding to it! A top tip in my eyes), I was not entirely sure of the amount of people that would be there, but all in total it was between 35-40 people. That was the most I’d ever seen in one place to listen to ME ramble on about insects.

I was fourth in the line up of speakers, and the women before me were phenomenal, all things climate crisis, economic crisis and ways forward, a whole pile of ideas and passion. It was finally my turn. I moved to the front of the room, my power point on display. The worst part is the quiet, and you can start to hear you heart in your ears and suddenly your mind goes blank. If you’re anything like me you’ll want to run at this point, or fake feeling ill. Don’t, take your time to recalibrate, have a good look at your first slide, and take a deep breath. I opened my talk with a bit of background about myself, and a joke. It went something like this:

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“Hello everyone, sorry, I am a bit nervous so I might be a bit shaky, but here goes. A little about myself, I did my undergrad at Salford University doing wildlife and practical conservation. At the end of my degree I decided to go on a birding holiday to Norfolk with friends, but suddenly realised I spent more time peering in to the undergrowth and looking for hidden insects than I was for birds, which lead me to this MSc, and now I look at bugs all day every day!” laughs really help to ease you, I really recommend starting it light hearted, run with it. I spoke about all the pollinators I could, highlighted the importance of looking out for insects in your garden and recording what you find. I spoke about projects I had been involved in that brings communities together to help increase pollinator numbers. Soon, I had been speaking for fifteen minutes. And I got an applaud at the end.

HURRAH. I did it! Was it so terrible? No, it was not. Was it terrifying? To begin with, slightly scary, but that eased. Could I do it again? Almost definitely.

My first public speaking event was a great one, I networked with some amazing women. I took questions and exchanged e-mails with people wanting help in their community. It was a great experience, and very freeing. Anyone that is thinking they can’t speak to the public is wrong, you most definitely can do it and it is a very rewarding experience! Being in science is all about speaking, its all about talking about the problems and the solutions. It’s talking about theories and data, its being excited about research.

So, if you ever get that “dreaded” e-mail, message, phone-call. Remember, they’ve contacted YOU for a reason, someone believes you can get the job done, and my advice would be to take it because every time you do it, it gets easier and it will get a little more exciting and a lot less scary.

Amy, you are definitely braver than me, but now you have good practice for upcoming group presentations!

Now, back to putting the finishing touches on our insect boxes ready to hand in on Thursday, and as always keep up to date with us on Twitter.

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Guthrie’s outstanding insect box for our Diversity and Evolution assignment

Elin

Hard at work!

Hello all! We are now seven (SEVEN!!) weeks into the course, and hard at work with assignments and extra reading for past and upcoming lectures. We have had a week off after Diversity and Evolution of Insects, and are just about to head into Experimental Design and Analysis. Kick-sampling in the rivers at Harper brought some hilarity to the week, as the rest of the week was devoid of fimo clay insects!

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‘Italians will eat anything’ from Lucy Crockford

Luckily we found time on Halloween for an anatomically correct, Entomology themed Halloween party!

I asked Louis (again petition pending to get Louis on Twitter) for a short write-up on BENHS, so thanks to him for this lovely piece:
Last weekend eight of us went to the British Entomological and Natural History Society (BENHS for short) annual student meeting. The day was packed with entomology-based talks and networking opportunities. Upon arrival, the staff – Jon Cole and Ian Sims – opened up the previous night’s moth trap catch for us to have a look at; then we began the talks! The subjects covered throughout the talks ranged from bumblebee genetics to photography of insects and other creatures in the Peruvian Amazon. During each coffee break and over lunch time we had the chance to talk to the speakers and learn more about their work and glean advice as well as discuss future collaborative opportunities. Despite the overarching entomological theme, there was another, more subtle theme that I noticed throughout the talks: I learned that routes into a career in entomology needn’t follow a specific, typical path as I had previously believed to be the case; each speaker at the meeting presented a different route by which they found their way into entomology. This message, whether intentional or not, was refreshing amongst us, the students. We also learned about the plethora of useful and interesting resources such as the collection, books and journal subscriptions available to us, should we choose to join BENHS. I therefore highly recommend checking out the BENHS and all they have to offer!

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The dedicated students who headed down to BENHS, L-R Charlie, Rachel, Amy, Jen, Graham, Mark, and Louis in front.

As always, find updates on our Twitter, though there may just be photos of tears and computers as we grapple with R this week!

Elin

Welcome to the 2019/2020 blog!

Hello all! Welcome to the 2019/2020 MSc Entomology blog posts. We have settled into life in Harper Adams, and are half way through our second module (Biology and Taxonomy of Insects). Over the next few months we’ll introduce new students in various blog posts about our areas of interest or particularly notable adventures. We also have some exciting trips planned where we hope to share our love of insects! For now, a recap of the last few weeks.

We started life at Harper with a day of inductions and introductions; we met everyone on the course and learned where everything is and how it all works. After this, we had three days of Research and Information Skills, learning about the peer review process and how to critically review papers, as well as an exciting introduction to the statistical analysis software R (no sarcasm there I promise!). Friday was graduation of last year’s cohort as well as undergrads, and was a lovely sunny day of celebrations and certainly something to look forward to a year from now. From here we were set off to write our first assignment, and made good use of the week break to get started on this and explore the local area.

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The 2019 Postgraduate cohort. Most of us are the second row in, or third from the back!

Biology and Taxonomy of Insects has been a fantastic module to get our teeth (or mouthparts) into; from keying out Fimo clay larvae to dissecting out froghopper genitalia (to identify the species of course) we’ve had a wonderful week. Our week consisted of morning lectures for a general introduction to the Orders (Orthoptera, Hemiptera, and Hymenoptera), then an afternoon laboratory session to dissect and identify species within the order. We also had sessions on sampling methods and larval stage identification (and its difficulties). Our visit on Wednesday from Andrew Polaszek and his incredible knowledge of Hymenoptera certainly inspired us!

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Fimo larvae!

 

A small introduction to this years Royal Entomological Society scholars, as well as a huge thank you to the RES for their continued sponsorship, is in order. A full blog post will be written after the submission of their essays, but for now I asked for a brief factsheet from each person, here goes my attempt at formatting on WordPress for the first time!

Name: Jennifer Jones (@jendiberjones)
Undergrad degree: Ecology (Aberystwyth University)
Favourite insect: A tricky one. I think it could be the hairy footed flower bee as the males have a little white moustache and hairy arms too!
Hobbies: Reading, bio recording, some wildlife photography and knitting.
Future plans: Hopefully researching insects and the services pollinators supply and how to help them, or possibly independent ecological survey specialising in insects and museum curation.

Name: Charlie Rose (@CharlieMyrmRose)
Undergrad degree: Zoology (University of Derby)
Favourite insect: Ants (particularly Cephalotes specularis)
Hobbies: Reading, hiking, and board games with friends.
Future plans: Research, preferably working on ant ecology or biology.

Name: Louis Nicholls (Petition to get Louis on Twitter coming soon)
Undergrad degree: Biology (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Favourite insect: Praying mantises (order Mantodea) and of them, at the moment, the Tarachodid bark mantises. Mantids are beautiful, charismatic and diverse yet, unfortunately, they’re extremely poorly studied – I find this baffling considering the long-standing historical and cultural presence of the group worldwide.
Hobbies: Along with photography, I love martial arts and, most of all, catching and studying bugs (and I don’t just mean Hemiptera!)
Future plans: To add to the knowledge on Mantodea, with a focus on their ecology and an aim to explore whether they hold potential as tropical bioindicators.

Name: Graham Smith (@Ento_Bento)
Undergrad degree: Biology (University of Nottingham)
Favourite insect: Bloody-nosed beetle
Hobbies: Rambling, running, anime, drawing.
Future plans: Building confidence to potentially lecture in future, to share my enthusiasm with others.

Now, back to assignment writing and reading up on the orders we studied last week!

Elin (@elin_cunningham)

A good year for mind-controlling ladybird-munchers

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Dinocampus coccinellae: a fearsome foe of ladybirds. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For my Masters Research Project (MRP) I am taking a look at righting and death-feigning among beetles, including a couple of ladybird species. I made the decision that I would try and work with natural populations wherever possible – the only problem with that, of course, is that nature can be the cruellest cohabiter.

Upon setting up a colony of seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), it quickly became apparent that I had a bit of an issue; namely finding quite a few specimens protectively guarding yellow cocoons. Doing such a good job of it, in fact, that it was almost impossible to remove them from both cocoon and plant. Dinocampus coccinellae had joined my project uninvited.

I was aware of possible parasitism of beetle juvenile stages, including those of ladybirds, but not the wasps with a penchant for taking on adults. Little did I know that this is the Braconid wasp D. Coccinellae’s stock-in-trade – and one that it’s building up such a reputation for its it’s started to become a minor mainstream news story. Indeed, once I was aware of it, I started to see ladybirds in their natural habitat sitting on cocoons seemingly everywhere, like some strangely beautiful horror movie in the undergrowth.

Coccinella septempunctata in aggressive cocoon-cuddling mode. Photo: Brad Foster (Twitter @bradwaspfoster)

The parasitoid was first given a full biological description in 1926 after it was first noted in Europe, and since then, boy has it settled in.

One facet of the appeal of insects is a feeling that the aliens are among us already – and indeed parasitoids really did inspire that scene in the film Alien. With D. coccinellae, it is isn’t just about depositing an egg inside the ladybird and leaving its young to, all being well (from the wasp’s perspective of course), burst out of its host’s body an adult. It goes in for full-on control and manipulation, creating ‘zombies’ from ladybird hosts that guard a wasp cocoon spun between its legs by larvae after they’ve had their feeding fun. In its sensory-controlled state, the ladybird twitches to deter predators as the larvae pupates and hangs in there for adulthood. They do a fine ‘bodyguard’ job too, with studies showing only 15% survival against predators with host protection, and 65% with.

This may well be a problem of particular concern to the seven-spot ladybird, as research has shown that while it’s wily wasp enemy can decimate its populations, successful parasitism and emergence rates of the wasp are significantly lower when it makes an ovipositional attack on the invasive Harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, while the two-spot ladybird, Adalia bipunctata, is an unsuitable host altogether. To make matters much worse for C. septempunctata, it has been demonstrated that its toxic defence chemicals actually act as a considerable attractant to D. coccinellae. Bloody hell, nature.

It seems that a perfect storm is gathering, where a wasp, a highly-successful invasive competitor, a fairly narrow (and early in the year) breeding period and other environmental stressors are combining to make life extremely difficult for one of the UK’s classic ladybird species. Will it withstand the onslaught? Too early to tell – but there are certainly reasons for concern.

As for my experiment, maintenance of colony health since the first sightings has proved a game of watching intently for signs of parasitism, removing rapidly, rinsing and repeating. But stare into D. coccinellae’s intensely beautiful shiny green eyes under a microscope and you can’t help feeling this is an animal you’re never going to quite have the measure of. Allow me this excessive sweep of anthropomorphism: its gaze really does follow you around.

While my run-in with this small wasp has provided much by way of irritation, once you’ve taken a step back from your emotional response, it’s hard not to simply admire a highly-specialised species succeeding in its niche. That is, however, likely to be extremely cold comfort for those looking to conserve the UK’s native ladybirds.

The ageless joy of the bug hunt

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Black clock beetle, Pterostichus madidus

There are, sadly, probably more misguided perceptions about insects than there are accurate ‘takes’. But there are plenty of preconceived ideas about those who take an interest in them, too.

High among them is the sense that insect interest is just for kids; something that should be ‘grown out of’. Such views are supported by the high availability of products bearing insect iconography among children’s’ toys and clothing, with such imagery generally tapering off (but not entirely) with age.

Personally, I have recently come to a realisation that it’s not just my decidedly mediocre mathematics that put me off the idea of pursuing zoological interests in favour of journalistic ones, before returning now, in my thirties, to a world of pitfall traps and invertebrate amazement once again. I have been labouring for way too long under feelings that a keen intense interest in insects, and indeed nature more broadly, for its own sake is somehow juvenile – something to cringe about rather than indulge or even celebrate.

I still sometimes feel pangs of embarrassment when spotted out collecting ladybirds for my Master’s Research Project – but certainly feel more shame about the embarrassment than the insect love itself now, which is at least progress of sorts. It may never truly go away, but the act of marvelling at the bustle in the undergrowth is now, thankfully, winning.

This tussle with perceptions both real and imagined leads me to suspect that there are thousands of adults out there suppressing a love of everything insect in the name of misguided concepts of maturity. Indeed, it’s been notable, since starting this course, how many of my friends with kids have remarked to me how their child is really into one insect or another. Yeah, but which do YOU love?

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Peacock butterfly, Aglais io

I’m currently trying to indoctrinate my nieces in the ways of the insect world, in a not entirely dissimilar but somewhat gentler manner to that with which Harper Adams’ entomology course leader Simon Leather attempts to indoctrinate all students with a solid appreciation of the aphid. It’s going pretty well, but the bigger challenge might well be to ensure they don’t shun interest upon reaching a certain age.

Not everyone’s going to be so interested they pursue insects to an academic level of course, but it’s hard not to imagine that ecological prospects might be a fair bit more solid if every child bug enthusiast let themselves be an adult bug enthusiast without casting shade on themselves.

It’s not just suppression of interest for erroneous ideas about growing up that can make one lose sight of the simple pleasure of observing the fascinating and often downright bizarre machinations of the insect realm, though. On embarking upon entomological study, there’s a secondary risk of getting so heavily into the mighty detail of it all, whether that’s at a molecular or genetic level or simply studying the minutiae of an insect behavioural trait, that the simple pleasure of exploring what’s out there, or even marvelling at insects per se is lost. Every entomologist should aim to remind themselves every day what a joy getting the chance to work with such remarkable creatures is.

Whatever happens from here, I’ve got my bug love back – and this time I’m not going to let it lapse. Anyway, I need to wrap this up as I’ve got pitfall traps to set.

Why Locusts Would be Hawks

“War, huh, yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing.”
Edwin Starr

It’s arguable that things aren’t as clear cut as Starr’s 1969 hit makes out – that in fact, it all depends on perspective. Take locusts for example: if they were able to have a perspective, they’d be inclined to see the positive side of military might and political strife.

Locusts have a tendency to thrive where chaos reigns. War is good for going biblical, and in complex modern conflicts, they could often be considered the only winners. The problem with them taking their spoils of war, from an admittedly anthropocentric point of view, is that they’re spoiling often already-strained lives along the way.

It is a tragic truth that some of the world’s poorest – and most politically unstable – countries fall in the heart of the age-old battle against the family Acrididae’s most notorious member.

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Photo: Christiaan Kooyman/ Wikimedia Commons

Before we get into that, a slight clarification: locusts have very little in the way of hawkish tendencies when they’re on their own – they’re just solitary grasshoppers getting on with their lives. The problem is that they are the ultimate example of individuals which change their character in a group. When coming into close contact, for example in vegetation flushes after a drought, over a few generations, solitary becomes gregarious behaviour – and then comes potential trouble. War offers the chance to increase population density while no-one’s watching on. If caught too late, potentially catastrophic progress could be only at the whim of the wind.

At worst, locust swarms can reach hundreds of square miles in size, and travel vast distances. With each eating its weight in plants a day, the potential consequences are not hard to grasp.

But all is not lost. The fight to curtail locust upsurges brings out a gregarious side to entomologists, too. The field is often seen by outsiders as hermetic – but controlling locust populations is the definition of applied entomology, gone geopolitical and by its very nature, public.

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Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano. Editorial use only. Copyright FAO.

Annie Monard has been at the forefront of the human-locust struggle for over two decades at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). For her team, tackling the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) in particular, is a never-ending and sometimes perilous mission.

“We balance the situation in a country when there are conflicts or instability,” says Monard. “We use information we can get in the neighbouring countries because what always has to be present in mind is that locusts are a trans-boundary pest. Generally, when there are locust issues, it is immediately in three, four countries.”

FAO has three Commmissions to cover S. gregaria’s huge distribution area. One of the three covers West and Northwest Africa – a region which includes Libya and Mali, two countries with current active conflict.

Mali is one of four countries in the region with permanent S. gregaria breeding populations. With access to the northern part of the country currently impossible, monitoring relies entirely on reports from locals and retired staff living in that area. These can be delayed or incomplete, but it’s something. At the same time, surveys have been intensified in bordering areas of neighbouring countries.

Instability can breed a pragmatic sort of creativity, and it is in evidence here. Soldiers in the national military have been given basic training to report on locust sightings, giving some added, combat-style ‘boots on the ground’ to the intelligence-gathering effort.

But there is conflict and there is conflict – and Yemen currently represents the gravest end of the spectrum. “Forget everything,” says Monard. “The same message is coming back: no surveys were carried out due to insecurity. So I mean, there is nothing. It is not possible to do the basic work in that country.”

When upheaval comes, agricultural budgets are often the first raided – as was the case during Madagascar’s military coup in 2009. Monitoring stopped, locusts bred unwatched, and populations surged quickly.

In frontline countries – those with permanent locust habitats and breeding areas – the aim is to survey as thoroughly as possible, aided by technology such as satellite imaging, drones and the FAO’s elocust system, which allows national field staff to input standardised data. If locusts would have a preference for states of war, the human counterinsurgency effort is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Timing is everything in this war-within-wars. There’s no use trying to wipe out every locust, so you have to know when there’s enough massing to justify a strike. “We advocate a locust preventive control strategy relying on monitoring, early warning and early reaction,” added Monard. “Our aim is to try and be as proactive as possible – not acting as ‘firemen’.”

Though this human Vs. insect struggle offers no prospect of a definitive winner, and containment the only realistic prospect, rarely has entomology been so vital.

Much ado about mothing

On a clear sunny day, a butterfly skips across a field; its bold colours brightly displayed against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It floats in the air with such a grace and beauty that all who see it point and marvel at this wonder of nature. However, as the day draws on and the night creeps in a looming shadow stretches out from dark. From the dimmest corners of the forest, a creature lurks ready to infest our homes and bring us dread. As you look in terror, it enters your home- its dark brownish-grey form skulks through the corridors as it settles on your carpet, sofa or within your wardrobe.

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Poster from the 1961 movie “Mothra” wherein a giant moth attacks Japan and is belived to be evil, it is later revealed that Mothra is trying to protect its island’s culture.

There, the beast starts to munch away at the material until a multitude of holes cover your belongings. You know that when day comes it will melt back into the shadows, but for now your traps and mothballs are for naught as your home is savaged by a bleak, boring and fearsome moth; a slave only to street lamps and bedside lights.

Misunderstandings can lead to us causing an array of mistakes and acts of poor judgement, in the Shakespeare play “Much ado about nothing” a character is fooled into believing their betrothed is a scoundrel and cheat resulting in them leaving their lover at the altar. In the same way we have been led to believe that whilst butterflies are resplendent gems of the warmer seasons, their moth cousins are drab grey beasts ready to ruin our homes in the dark unforgiving night. Instead, both butterflies and moths deserve to be celebrated for their beauty and wonder, all preconceptions about moths should be put aside so they can be appreciated and not just be thought of as pests. Why are moths not so bad? Why should we like them as much as butterflies? Well, there are plenty of answers to these questions and, hopefully, I can convince you why moths should be given a chance by separating mothmyth from mothfact.

MothMyth #1- Moths are all dull, boring and small
In mothfact, much like our resplendent butterflies, moths come in a plethora of shapes, sizes and colours. The atlas moth (Attacus atlas), as its name suggests, is one of the largest moths in the world with a wingspan reaching up to 30cm.

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The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas). basking on a tree

Instead of being drab, its wings are a wonderful orange colour with white and black patterning on the inner wing with purple, yellow and red outlines. The pattern on its forewing “hooks” are reminiscent of a snake’s head- this is thought to help deter predators who would eat this goliath of a moth. The Merveille du jour (Griposia aprilina), meaning “wonder of the day” is a resplendent creature with a light-green colouring banded with black and white to make it appear like lichen on a tree; this wonderful pattern allows it to seem almost invisible when sitting in plain sight.

MothMyth #2- Moths only ever come out at night
Although many moth species do come out at night, in mothfact a large number of them can be seen fluttering around in the daytime. The Humming bird Hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) is one of the best examples that moths have to offer.

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A humming bird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) feeding on flower nectar

It gains its name from the way its wings move in a figure eight motion and paired with its fondness for nectar has been likened to a hummingbird. Most importantly (for this section at least) it mostly flies during the day, favouring bright sunny weather over moonlit skies.

 

 

MothMyth #3- Moths just want to eat my clothes
Different species of moth dine upon a variety of food items, from fruit to nectar. For these mothfacts I will mention a few of the fascinating dietary options some moth species have chosen. Firstly, we have a vampire moth (Calyptra thalictra) which, as you may have guessed, stalks the dark night in search of blood. Using its proboscis (an elongated mouthpart) it pierces the hide of mammals, like elephants and buffalo, where it sucks up blood which wells towards the entry point. Although this may seem scary, it represents a unique, interesting feeding method only seen in one moth subfamily, showcasing how intriguing moths can be.

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One of the death’s head hawkmoths (Acherontia atropos), with it’s beautiful skull markings and yellow colouration

Next, we have our superstar moth the death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia styx, to name one), famed for the skull shaped pattern on its abdomen and high-pitched squeaking- this moth rose to fame when people believed it was an omen of death and later when it starred in “Silence of the Lambs”. The black and yellow colouration of this moth helps it blend into beehives allowing it to dine on honey, not your socks.

So next time you hear someone complain about moths, just remember this small insight into their fascinating world and how interesting they really are despite their poor reputation