Country diary: An improbable blend of cocktail lounge and military dowdiness

·2 min read

I often liken the opening of my moth trap to Christmas morning in childhood: you have no idea what you are about to be gifted. Today, it’s 17 elephant and small elephant hawkmoths, which is more than I’ve ever seen before.

The first is an improbable blend of the cocktail lounge and military dowdiness, with shimmering lines of pink over matt olive. If anything, the small elephant hawkmoth is more striking, with the soldier’s khaki replaced by a colour somewhere between aconite yellow and burnt grass. In certain lights, as I arrange them on a sheet beneath the shade of our oak, they look like lipstick on gold.

However, there is a curious reflection at work as I proceed, because I always feel – for some reason – an urge to see the adults of any insect species rather than other stage of its life. It’s nagging me because I recently found the larva of a moth called the giant peacock, the largest moth in Europe, which bears exquisite pink-rimmed eyes upon its four enormous wings.

Alas, I only saw the caterpillar. I say “alas”, but it was no insignificant beast itself: a florescent lime “finger” studded with yellow warts from which spired thick black bristles. Yet the desire for the adult was undiminished, and I know its odd because many insects spend more of their lives as larvae than they do adults.

The golden-ringed dragonfly can live several months in its final winged avatar but three years as a voracious pond-dwelling nymph. Stag beetles live as enormous whitish larvae for up to seven years, and some American cicadas spend 17 years underground before emerging for a brief summer of blade-grinding song and breeding. In fact, some adult moths have no mouthparts and only days in which to pass on their genes before they inevitably starve.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, about my elephant hawkmoths, is not one stage or another, but that they start as a pimple-sized eggs on our willowherb, grow by devouring the leaves into silver-eyed worms the size of my pinky and, finally, metamorphose into pink-and-khaki angels to adorn this summer’s morning.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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