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On the Trail of the Emperor

20 Apr On the Trail of the Emperor

The beauty of a butterfly is never argued, but it’s hard to imagine creatures of the night like moths, can out shine that beauty. Since we began moth recording we’ve seen some stunning species, like the Burnished Brass and its iridescent metallic green sheen, the Elephant Hawkmoth with its vivid pinks and greens, and Beautiful Golden Y, with its beautifully simple markings, but none of these compare to the Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia)

During warm, sunny days with a slight breeze, in April and May lepidopterists head to the hills in search of the Emperor. It’s food plants as a larva are mostly woody species such as heather so they are often associated with moorland, with this in mind we headed up to Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s Whitelee Moor Nature Reserve, a site of European conservation importance due to it’s active blanket bog and heather heaths.

The weather was perfect, it was 18 degrees and a slight breeze blew down the valley. We followed the burn up into the hills, surrounded by the calls of Willow Warblers, Lapwings, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, with Wheatear sitting prominently against the landscape.

Usually our moth recording takes place at night, using light traps, or by catching day flying moths in hand nets, but this time we used a different technique, a pheromone lure. Female Emperor Moths fly by night, and can sometimes be caught by light, but male Emperors fly during the day, this is because during the day female Emperors rest amongst the undergrowth, secreting a pheromone to attract a nearby male to mate. Our synthetic pheromone does the exactly the same, allowing us to a record a species which is often incredibly difficult to see.

We deployed our pheromone lure on the moor, using the guidelines and advice provided by Butterfly Conservation (it’s incredibly important not to over use the lure, as it interrupts natural behaviour) and waited! First location, our only visitor was a Peacock Butterfly, the second location held nothing. It’s a strange feeling waiting for an invisible pheromone to lure a moth which isn’t often seen, every bumblebee, bird, fly or butterfly that brought the horizon grabs your attention. Unfortunately on this occasion the moor didn’t provided us with a sighting of the Emperor, but we had recorded a number of other species on our visit!

We headed home planning new locations and our next try, but that wasn’t the end of the day…

I’ve been photographing the birds visiting the garden and have recently added a portable reflection pool, so this afternoon I had a bit of a tidy up, and tinker with the setup. All of a sudden I caught something out the corner of my eye, it looked like a butterfly heading towards me, but the flight was wrong, IT WAS AN EMPEROR MOTH! We both jumped, fumbling around to find the butterfly net, it was still in the car!

I quickly managed to get the Emperor safely in a moth tub, and there it was, our first ever Emperor Moth in our garden! What a beauty!

A second moth soon joined, following the pheromone residue left on my hand from the morning.

We started our Hidden Redesdale project to help enable our community to discover the wildlife on our doorsteps, but I never imagined finding Emperor Moths in the garden!

If you would like to find out more about our Hidden Redesdale project, come along to one of our launch events and join our Facebook Group. You can find out more here.


The Urban Wilds of Ouseburn
Hidden Redesdale