When I began to create my latest wildlife-friendly garden five years ago, I drew up a target list of creatures that I really wanted to create the right conditions for. Yes, I would be happy with whatever turned up, but there were some that I knew would excite me immensely if they took up my offer to move in
One of them was this:
It is the Six-spot Burnet Moth, a day flying moth with six bright red spots on each upper forewing and ridiculous handlebar antennae.
Get it in the right light, however, and the black background to the red spots reflects the light with a metallic turquoise hue.
And I'm pleased to say that the photos were taken this week in my garden.
I can definitely say they have colonised because I have also found the dry, papery cases which are the remains of the pupae from which the adults emerge. They pupate half way up a stiff grass or plants stem, meaning that these are quite easy to find.
This is a moth that is very widespread in the UK, but is only commonly found in natural grasslands - haymeadows, downland and the like.
So, there were four key things I needed to do in my garden to try and fulfil my burnet moth mission.
1) Create a mini meadow.
2) Include in it the foodplant of the Six-spot Burnet's caterpillar, which is the ever-useful Bird's-foot Trefoil. It's pretty, it brightens up any grasslands, and it is also the foodplant of Common Blue butterfly caterpillars AND a wonderful nectar plant for many bee species. It's a winner!
3. Include the nectar plants of the adult Six-spot Burnet. They especially love knapweeds and scabiouses, and in the first two pictures you can see my Six-spots are feeding on Common Knapweed, which is also a great plant for nectaring meadow butterflies.
4. Patience. For three years I saw not a single Six-spot Burnet; last year I saw two on a couple of days; and this year my peak count has been nine and they've been around for several; weeks already.
Not only has my patience been rewarded, but I think I may have even more next year to celebrate, because they have been merrily breeding. In the next photo, you can see a pair mating, back to back, with what I presume to be another male zooming in to inspect.
But how come they don't get picked off by birds, given they are so obvious (and preoccupied!) sat out on flowerheads?
The clue is in the colouring - 'bright red on black' spells warning. And, boy, they mean it! Six-spot Burnet moths synthesise a cocktail of hydrogen cyanide and smelly pyrazines. And here's the clever bit - they get the chemicals they need for this from the Bird's-foot Trefoil.
Indeed, it is thought that the females pump out a cloud of these compounds when they are ready to mate, which to the males is a love potion with kick! No wonder the trio soon became a rather ambitious foursome as another male came homing in.
What I'm pleased to say is that the Six-spot Burnet is found across the UK, wherever the habitat is right, so you have every chance of achieving the same outcome as me. Indeed, my inspiration came from a former colleague and amazing naturalist, Keith Noble, who showed me his colony breeding in a tiny 'meadow' on his front lawn.
What a moth! Just don't try eating one...
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