Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

July 2018
Red admiral
Painted lady

‘Where moth and rust doth corrupt‘


Butterflies and moths are close relatives and insects known in scientific terms as Lepidoptera: this means wings covered with minute, coloured scales which reflect the colours for which they are admired. However the love we may have for these colourful insects is generally restricted, undeservedly, to butterflies, moths are certainly less popular or even actively disliked in a household, mainly because of just one family, the clothes moths.

The condemnation of moths seems to arise from the Biblical view of moths since there are several references to these ‘hated’ insects and not a word in the whole of scripture, either good or bad, about butterflies. This is odd since the Holy Land is well-known for a colourful selection of wildflowers and Lepidoptera today, including some spectacular insects familiar to us, Red Admiral, Painted Lady and Swallowtail butterflies, Oleander and Humming-bird Hawk Moths, as well as the ‘small brown jobs’.

Were they not recognised as related insects, is something missing in translation? A clue to the ancient opinion of moths appears in the Old Testament in Isaiah 51:8 referring to events around 1,000 BC, Isaiah says “Ignore the reproach of men for the moth shall eat them up like a garment and the worm shall eat them like wool”. Clearly this refers to the clothes moth where the damage to clothing is correctly stated as being due to the feeding of the grub or caterpillar stage of the insect’s life history probably the species Tineola bisselliella. In the New Testament, Matthew 6:19 records a teaching of Christ “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt”. It seems clear that the harm done by the clothes moth was a common domestic experience.

When falling into disfavour Jonah 4:6,7 describes being shaded by a plant which was then attacked and destroyed by a ‘worm’, commonly held to be the Castor Oil plant and the Israeli Tiger Moth Olepa schleini larva. A strange creature feeding on a plant which is a source of the toxin ricin! “Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered”. (Some translators suggest the plant to be of the gourd family?)

What a pity that such an amazing and beautiful group of insects has attracted such serious dislike just because the larvae of a few species have a liking for woolly jumpers, soiled silk fabric and suchlike. There are, of course many other species of both butterfly and moth that do damage to our crops but which attract less opprobrium than the clothes moth. Well known but also less so these days, is the maggot in an apple (Codling moth) where it said to be better to discover a whole maggot (actually a caterpillar) than half of one!

As for the clothes moths, their activity is seen less in the chest of drawers today than formerly. Greater personal cleanliness and the incorporation of man-made fibres in clothing and carpets have had a big effect. No longer do we need the pungent smell of moth balls in the jersey drawer!