Book review: Much Ado About Mothing

A punning title for a book about moths; being a fan of both puns and moths I was sold. Yet Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen is as much about compulsion and/or obsession as it is about winged insects. As such it will likely also appeal to those with hobbies which drive them to great lengths, as well as to those interested in moths.

I’m more the latter than the former, although I’m not beyond a birding ‘twitch’ and have also been to see my favourite band, New Model Army*, in six different countries. Yet the ‘thrill of the chase’, which is the essence of this book, moved me less than moths themselves do. That said, I learned from and – enjoyed much of – Lowen’s tale of his ‘year intoxicated by Britain’s rare and remarkable moths’ even if the race to tick off the next species element soon wore a bit thin for me.

The book starts with Lowen telling how, although he had plenty of friends who’d become ‘moth-ers’, he wasn’t especially drawn to the mostly nocturnal insects and resisted entreaties to join in. Until one day a friend shows him a huge example, the Poplar Hawk moth, the size and beauty of which wins him over and triggers his fascination for the creatures – which have much more in common with butterflies than most people realise. (“Moths are simply butterflies with bad PR,” Lowen tells us.)

This bad PR aspect was something I didn’t appreciate – and still can’t get my head round. Not only is there widespread disinterest in moths, there is active animosity towards them. Apparently many people simply aren’t aware that there are many colourful and day-flying moth species. Instead they think all moths are clothes-munching pests.

Through this catalogue of Lowen’s year chasing rare moths, we learn that although many are fussy eaters – some moth caterpillars have only one food plant and will eat nothing else – moths themselves mostly feed on nectar from flowers or sap oozing from wounded trees. Some can’t feed at all. For most types of moth (or more accurately their caterpillars) clothes are simply not their thing. Also, not only do most moths NOT live in your wardrobe, some live in really far flung places and scarce habitats.

Lowen’s writing is full of poetry and his descriptions of moths go a long way to making them sound like miniature flying works of art, but I found myself wanting more tales of how his daughter feels about moths and the ‘pub chat’ he curtails at one point. I think this would have engaged me more than hearing how a carful of blokes had set off to chase rare moths again. To give him his due, there’s lots of detail about meeting other moth experts and enthusiasts (a good number of whom are women) and the different species they focus on, but I still felt the narrative wanted for a bit more colour.

Another thing we learn – and perhaps we wouldn’t were it not for him telling us of his many blokey excursions – is that moths are imperilled in the same way that much of our other more visible wildlife is. Hence the need to chase up and down the British Isles to see certain species which are simply only found at a handful of locations.

Something I found refreshing about Much Ado was Lowen’s self-awareness of potential – and legitimate – criticism that might be made of his moth quest. For example he acknowledges that a 1,000 mile round trip to see three species of burnet moth in the Scottish Highlands is ‘environmentally irresponsible’. He also considers the difference between finding desired species for himself, or via his own trap, versus a ‘pot tick’ – meaning going to see one which someone else has caught. He decides the latter doesn’t mean as much to him – but the book still features quite a lot of moths seen this way.

Something I felt was missing was more about what a challenge it is to identify moths – and how this might be one of the things which puts some off. I speak with experience. Although running a home-made moth trap in my garden was fascinating and looking at the moths I caught completely absorbing, it was also extremely frustrating. So many species look very alike to the inexperienced eye and, the truth is that despite the intricate and amazing wing patterns, many of them are ‘little brown jobs’. I suppose this is why Lowen decided to focus his book on species that were more dramatic in appearance.

Nevertheless, Much Ado About Mothing, is a welcome publication and valiant effort at improving the PR of moths – a group of wonderful winged insects which deserve both more of our attention and our protection.

Much Ado About Mothing is published by Bloomsbury Wildlife in hardback at £18.99

*Yes New Model Army are still going – and no, NOT Tubeway Army. That was Gary Numan’s band.