I’ve been keeping a close eye on walls near my flat in the last few months, ever since I realized that many kinds of moths on brightly lit walls at night, and can still be seen in the morning. The moths change from month to month. Perhaps part of this is just chance, but there seems to be some connection to the changing weather. As it got warmer, I’ve started seeing these green moths (featured photo) make an appearance. At rest it appears between 1 and 2 centimeters in size. I thought first that they are a widespread grass moth called Parotis marginata, but now examining the photo, I suppose it is not. P. marginata holds its deep green wings in the same triangular configuration when resting, but it has a brown margin to the wings, not white. I guess it belongs to the same superfamily (Pyraloidea) and I could just lump it into a species complex named after its commonest member Parotis marginata.
Another morning I spotted several of these Asota producta (superfamily Noctuoidea, no common name) sitting on the wall. They are among the largest moths I’ve seen in the last three months; at rest they are easily more than 2 centimeters long, and the wingspan is said to be as large as 6 cms in some specimens. It is widely reported across Sri Lanka, India and the Sundaland, which is Malaya peninsula and the islands around Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. Little more is known about it. We do not even know what it normally feeds on. I guess a strikingly coloured moth like this deserves a common name. Do you think that the spotted orange and brown is a name which is easily remembered?
It is hard to believe the diversity of moths visible in a city like Mumbai. In recent months I’ve taken to scanning external walls of my flat, near lights which stay on all night, and usually I’m rewarded with the sight of a few moths which seem to like to stay in the open all day. Recently I came across an auld acquaintance, the spectacular Cydalima laticostalis. Before you begin to wonder whether you should dedicate your life to recording moths, I should warn you that it is hard. Unlike birds and butterflies, no one has bothered to give them wonderful common names, so you will often have to remember the Latin binomial. Also, there are too many varieties to capture in field guides, and the colours are extremely variable, so you might see a green moth which turns out to be the same species as the brown moth you saw three days ago. Conversely, there are myriads of species complexes, which are groups of species which are so closely related that they cannot be told apart by eye.
The featured photo was taken this moth on an east facing wall in the morning sun, and my smart phone’s AI assistant was left a little confused about colour correction. The true colours of this moth are more easily appreciated in a photo I took on one October morning in 2006 in a well-lit but shadowed area in my flat. I was struck by the satiny appearance with the gold marginal border. It took me a couple of years to get a good ID (yes, there are very few moth experts) and to find that it is a leaf skeletonizer, a moth which lives by munching the green crunchy bits off leaves, leaving a beautiful but useless skeleton. Reports are so sporadic that I think this blog may be the first report of it being spotted in Maharashtra in Febraury. I have no idea when it breeds, or what it looks like as a caterpillar. After the box tree moth, Cydalima perspectalis, became an major invasive pest in Europe, the first modern genetic-taxonomic study revealed that its closest cousin was this leaf skeletonizer. Progress is slow.
Five years ago we spent a single night in Sohra, and regretted that we hadn’t planned a longer stay. The town was a small and charming place, and the single hotel was a traditional cottage perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking a village and a valley below that. A walk to the nearest living bridge would take us through the village.
When engineered structures are living objects, it was appropriate that the place was teeming with life. In one night I probably saw more species of moths, beetles, and other insects than I remembered seeing in the rest of my life. The most interesting was the stick insect, the first I’d ever seen. I had a hard time figuring out where the third pair of legs of this insect was. Note how often a moth has a substantially smaller insect nearby. I wished I had a microscope attachment to look at these millimeter sized living creatures. The insects that I photographed were strange and beautiful. I’m sure that stranger and equally beautiful things would emerge if we could zoom into these smaller beings.
The post has the word “remembered”, because I went back now to a place I was enchanted by. There is construction all across Sohra. I saw no moths this time around. This ties in with a recent report of a worldwide decline in insects. It is shocking because Meghalaya is at the edge of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. A decline in insect population drives a collapse in plants, and animals higher in the food chain.
This moth was probably a football fan. It flew in while we were watching one of the World Cup matches, and hid behind a curtain all night. Although this type is common in Mumbai, like most moths it has no common name. So I’m forced to call it the Pygospila tyres. I’ve seldom noticed the proboscis of moths, but here the coiled organ was so visible that the photos I took are concentrated on this. The proboscis is a tube which combines the functions of a drinking straw and a sponge for mopping up fluids. Ray Cannon has a very nice blog post on the proboscis of butterflies.
Scientists love to group all moths and butterflies together and call them Lepidoptera. This is useful because they have many features in common. All Lepidoptera which have proboscis are called Glossata. I didn’t think there was any need to have a new word for this; don’t all Lepidoptera have proboscis? After all, since the time of Darwin, people have studied how flowers and proboscis have shaped each other. You might be as surprised as me to read that there are some, although very few, moths without this organ. Some of them have mouths designed to masticate pollen, and some finish all their eating while they are caterpillars!
The proboscis is weirder than I’d ever thought about. Once it is uncoiled, Lepidoptera suck up fluids using muscles analogous to those in our cheeks and throats, so a drinking straw is not a bad description of it. Uncoiling uses a mechanism similar to erectile tissue in our bodies, in the sense that body fluids are pumped into the organ to flex it. Moreover, the adult stage of the insect forms the proboscis after it has emerged from its cocoon by fusing together two different appendages. But the oddest thing is that there are flexible sensory organs all along it (think of sensitive fingers) which give the insect a clear picture of the shape of the flower that it is probing.
Further searches led me to even stranger information. It seems that fossils of Glossata have now been found which are 212 million years old. This was a time when flowering plants had not yet evolved, so what use would there be for this organ? It seems that the era during which the newly discovered fossils lived was a time of ecological crisis. The ancient super-continent of Pangaea was beginning to break up and the atmosphere was full of greenhouse gases from the volcanoes which were tearing apart the continent. In this hot dry atmosphere water loss from the body would have been a major issue, and proboscis could be used to lap up even minute quantities of fluids. Even today Glossata ingest fluids from puddles of mud, mammalian sweat and avian tears.
The football fan was not interested in my tears or sweat. When I opened the window and flicked it off the curtain it disappeared into vegetation with strong beats of its wings.
I’ve written before about my frustration at not being able to identify moths in the field. There has been no change on that front in this month, except for the realization that one could try a different angle on it. The lights outside the rooms in Dilsher’s hotel attracted a very large number of moths. Some of these could still be seen early in the morning sitting on walls made of stone. I would be able to photograph them before they could fly away to wherever they spend the day. Looking at the photos I wondered whether I could tell anything about where they hide in the day.
The green moths probably hide in vegetation. I saw few of these, but the ones I did were very beautifully patterned. There are others whose wings mimic bark. If they sat on a tree trunk in full sight I would probably not notice them at all. Some are brown and yellow and probably spend the day hidden in leaf litter on forest floors. That leaves me guessing about one: the beautiful white one with red stripes.
It is so easy to tell butterflies from moths: just look at the antennae. If they have straight antennae ending in little clubs, then they are butterflies. The clubs could be nice and round, or long and slightly bent, or even slightly hooked. But if it is clubbed you have a butterfly. Otherwise you have a moth. Professional biologists learn to collect them into an order called Lepidoptera. Anything more than this begins to get frustrating, because 10% of all known species of animals are Lepidoptera. If you want to tell them apart, then you need to work through more than 120 families and eventually to 180,000 species. Impossible for us amateurs, isn’t it?
It is not just the numbers which are frightening. There are also the many species which look almost the same. Are the two in the photos above two different species? One has a much deeper colour than the other, of course. But they are the same size and shape. Also, the patterns on their wings are almost identical. With the photos in front of me, I can distinguish the pattern of dark streaks on the wings, and between the differences in colour and pattern, I’m almost certain that they are different species. But if one had been a little darker or the other a little lighter, or I saw them in bad light? I don’t think I would have been able to tell on the field which one I saw.
To compound the confusiuon see the two above. Do they have different wing shapes? One of them has moved its forewing back until it partly covers the hindwing. If it had held the wings out, they could have been the same shape. Does one often rest with its hindwings covered? Do both? You would have to learn to look away from the wings and at the snouts. One of them has a pointed snout, whereas the other seems to have a more rounded snout. That is probably the most telling difference between these.
The reason I persist in taking photos of moths and breaking my head over them is that some of them are really beautiful. Look at the pair above. The beautiful ashy grey is well-camouflaged against the rocks in this area. The mottled green and brown would almost disappear if it sat on a leaf. They clustered around external lights in Dilsher’s hotel all night and I could catch the last of them settled on stone walls when I woke up in the morning. I would spend the first fifteen minutes after waking up examining external walls with my camera.
All the moths I photographed in the morning were about the same size, between 1 and 2 centimeters across. At night I would see larger ones fluttering about lights. Presumably, being larger and more easily spotted, they are more wary of predators, and leave the exposed walls earlier in the morning. There were lots of smaller moths as well, but photographing them would have been finicky work with a macro lens. I would need a little breakfast before trying that, and on these holidays there were lots of other things to do after breakfast.
I was following The Family and The Young Niece along a little path 2 Kilometers above sea level when they came to a stop. I looked down at what they were looking at and saw a large golden, intricately patterned, moth. It took a moment for me to see that it was a real moth and not a piece of some plastic toy. There was straw scattered on the path. I took a couple of photos.
The featured photo shows the moth with the ground around it digitally trampled clean, so that its outline is clear. I’ve never seen a moth like this before, and could not find a mention of this. I thought it is a large moth, but apparently in the Himalayas there are moths with wings which are a foot across (30 centimeters). This was about a third or fourth that size. Moth identification is hard, and I know no amateur who is an expert at recognizing them.
The Young Niece asked, “Will it be okay?” Now that’s a question I’ve answered before. Moth and butterfly wings are similar; the muscles on the body drive only the front wings. They need only front wings to fly. The back wings are for manoeuvrability and speed. They can fly with parts of the back wings gone. We walked on as she listened to me. I don’t know whether she had noticed that this moth was missing large parts of its forewings.
Note added: This seems to be a pale Brahmid moth (Brahmaea hearseyi). It has previously been reported from the eastern Himalayas, as far west as Dehra Dun. This one was seen in a nameless village a little to the west of Gushaini (Himachal Pradesh), and is the westernmost sighting of this moth. It can be as large as 20 cms across, but this was about half that size.
I’m suffering from a cough and cold even as the temperature climbs into the mid thirties (Celsius, in case you are confused). The humidity has already started creeping up, reminding me of how bad May will get. Right in front of the window I see a mango tree beginning to fruit. If these fruits stay on the branch, they would ripen by the middle of May. Mangos are the compensation for the discomfort of summer. But it is very likely that these mangos will have become panha well before they ripen.
This is also the season when you get the most colourful moths. Walking to the lift the other day I noticed many of these two kinds of moths sitting on the wall, basking in the morning sun. They are about two centimeter long, and extremely visible in the light. The fact that crows and other birds do not make a quick snack of them probably means that they are either poisonous or not very tasty.
It has become warm enough to remind me of the medieval English song: “Sumer is icumen in/ Lhude sing cuccu.” A Koel is a cuckoo, isn’t it? I did hear a Koel the other day, but I think that was a ring tone on someone’s phone and not the bird. It’s nor really summer yet.
The day after Diwali is a good time to take stock. Did you really have so many sweets over the previous week that you now have to go on a diet? When do you tell the kids that there are some left-over firecrackers? Will anyone mind if you left the fairy lights up till Christmas?
I thought this is also a good time to spare a thought for the numerous moths which died by plunging into candles and diyas. Moths breed immediately after the end of the monsoon, and seem to undergo a huge culling on Diwali. I’m afraid the two in the featured photo are now mere memories.
After the monsoon ends the weather turns unbearably hot again; that’s what an Indian summer is. In the sweltering heat of October it is a minor disaster if you forget to water plants. The rose bush has been putting out flowers through the monsoon, because the rains keep it from drying up. Today I saw that two days of not watering it has begun to affect it.
Many plants are beginning to bud. I look at the methi (fenugreek) shrub. Every stalk is budding new leaves. The hairy surfaces of the leaves catch every piece of lint which floats by. You have to carefully wash the leaves before you use them in the kitchen.
But really this is the time of the year for insects. The hibiscus bush is beginning to push out flower buds. As soon as one opens, ants swarm over it. Soon they will bring their aphid cows up the stalks. The vegetation below the spectacular flower will be thick with aphids, as ants run up and down their farm milking them.
Moths have pupated too. I saw this lovely October visitor on the wall today, sitting out in full sight. The lore about bright and visible butterflies and moths is that they are poisonous. Many birds would see this yellow on the wings of the moth more brightly than we do, so it is definitely signaling that it is inedible.
Well back on the wall I found a few green lacewings. They are nocturnal and have probably come here to eat the aphids from the ant farms. Lacewings are not poisonous: birds and bats will happily eat them. That’s the reason this one was sitting far back on the wall, under an overhang. In another month all these showy insects will be gone. That’s when migratory birds begin to arrive.