A Lovely Surprise

White Ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda) (Photos copyright entomart)

Dear Readers, this morning I spent a bit of time in the front garden, tidying up the green alkanet and cutting back a little bit of the buddleia where it’s threatening to take the postman’s eye out. I stood up, stretched, and noticed a white moth with a fat yellow abdomen and a sprinkling of black spots feeding on the lavender. What a wonder it was! It was so white and furry that I could see exactly why it was called an ermine moth – you could just imagine them edging some miniature dignitary’s cloak. Alas, it only visited for a second before heading off up Huntingdon Road here in East Finchley. I could see it for a good minute as it sped off, glinting against the background of brick and slate.

White ermine moths can afford to be conspicuous – they are apparently poisonous, though I haven’t gotten to the bottom of whether this is actually true. As usual in internet land, people seem to just copy chunks of the Wikipedia page without checking whether the information is correct or not. But I suspect that that flash of yellow on the abdomen would be a strong warning to any passing bird, plus these are not the most shy and retiring of moths. When I used to visit Mum and Dad in Dorset, I found a very pale White Ermine moth just sitting on a fencepost, where surely someone would have picked him/her off if they’d been edible.

White Ermine moth at Moreton Station in Dorset.

It’s not just the adults who are delightfully furry, it’s the caterpillars as well – they are proper ‘woolly bears’, and as their main food plants include nettles, dandelions and viper’s bugloss you have an excellent argument for letting the weeds be.

White Ermine moth caterpillar (Photo by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4613188)

And so, that was my excitement for the day. Incidentally, you might remember me writing about some tent caterpillars called bird cherry ermine moths a year or so ago – these are micromoths, much smaller than today’s moth, although the adults of this species too are white and black. The tent caterpillars have the scientific name Yponomeuta yvonemella which is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s important to be able to distinguish between species without confusion, and this is the perfect way of doing just that – an ermine moth can mean at least three or four different species just in this country, so goodness knows how confusing it would be internationally. People sometimes get annoyed when ‘Latin’ names are used (often not Latin at all, incidentally – all sorts of languages crop up) but the more I study science, the more I realise how valuable these tongue-twisters can be.

And in the meantime, keep your eyes open for moths, those underrated pollinators and creatures of the most exquisite (and usually understated) beauty.


2 thoughts on “A Lovely Surprise

  1. Ann Bronkhorst

    How tasteful of it to pose on pale mauve lavender! Some moths are a little on the dowdy side but this one is gorgeous.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      It was very pretty, and in fact we had one in the house last night – whether it was the same one, or just that a bunch had all emerged at once, I guess we will never know 🙂


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