Growing up deep in rural England did not bring with it a great knowledge of nature. Perhaps it was because people are often uninterested in the things of everyday life all around them; perhaps it was because knowledge was not made accessible to children in the many ways that are possible now.
It was not until I was fifty that I became consciously aware that moths were creatures that might just as easily be seen in mid-winter as in mid-summer. During the bitterly cold weeks of December 2010, when temperatures were in double digits below zero, it was intriguing to drive a snow-covered road as the headlights picked out numerous moths crisscrossing the way. Perhaps it was the reflection of the lights from whiteness of the road and the verges made the moths more visible. It was the sight of insects that I associated with warm nights in late summer that led me to discover the existence of the winter moth; a moth which had a life cycle that stretched through the months of the year.
Driving down Turn Hill, high earth banks rise on either side of the road and, in the late afternoon darkness of December, the moths seemed to have emerged in their dozens. A cautious roll down the hill allowed the tiny, fragile creatures to escape collision with the windscreen of the car. It would have seemed a pity for them to have survived so long only to meet their end in a random contact with a machine that is far behind them in the evolutionary process.
An Internet search revealed the life cycle of moths. The females are flightless, laying eggs on branches which hatch into caterpillars which are able to use silken thread to “balloon” from one food source to another. Blue tits plan their breeding season around the emergence of the caterpillars; a single brood can consume ten thousand caterpillars; the caterpillars that survive the attention of birds fall to the ground to pupate in the summer. It seemed an extraordinary statistic, the few dozen moths that crossed the way were those that had survived from a potential total of tens of thousands. Of course, without the predatory birds, the moth population would become unsustainable.
There seemed a salutary lesson in the story of the moths: randomness, adaptation, survival. Nature seemed profligate in requiring so many caterpillars to produce a handful of moths, could blue tits not find other food? There seemed something almost mysterious in something so everyday.