Butterfly Conversation

Looking at enlarged images of moth genitalia might not strike you as a recipe for a great weekend. As a hobby, peering at moths’ bottoms enjoys limited appeal. Activities such as knitting are generally considered more popular and/or socially acceptable.

However. Faced with a room of thirty delegates – some from as far away as Serbia and Japan, I was forced to admit that there must be something in it.

The International Burnet Moth Symposium brings together scientists and keen naturalists from all over the world, united by their passion for just one family of moth: the Zygaenidae.

This year, the symposium came to Mull; home to one of the most localised burnet moths of all – the Slender scotch.

Delegates arrive at the Glengorm Coffee Shop


Glengorm hosted two days of lectures for the event, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on the presentations before showing the delegates around our own burnet moth habitat.

I admit, for a newcomer such as myself, the prospect of moth-based conversation was daunting.

Grabbing a glass of wine and thrusting myself into the An Tobar meet and greet session, I scanned for a friendly face.

Me: [trying to be cool] So, what aspect of the Zygaenidae family interests you?

Delegate: [enthusiastically] I am interested in looking at the sexual organs of the moths!

Me: <long pause as gulps wine>

Not the most promising start.

But, I later learned that studying moth-bottoms is a great way to identify new species. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to do that?

So far, over 1,000 members have been named in this family and many remain undescribed.

The following morning, perched at the back of the Glengorm lecture area and worrying about earthly matters – such as how many clean table cloths we had spare, would there be enough scones, did anyone have special dietary requirements… I didn’t know that I was about to see the light.

I think it bears testament to the skill and infectious enthusiasm of the speakers that within five minutes, my scone was languishing, forgotten on its serviette.

Burnet moths are really very interesting.

Throw down your knitting needles. Chop up your tennis rackets. Learning about burnets is not just a hobby, but an opportunity to discover. And what remarkable discoveries there are to be made.

I learned, for example, that burnet moths thrive on cyanide. Their bold colouration [generally black with bright splodges] warns that they are distasteful and toxic. In fact, sprinkling just twenty of them on your cornflakes would kill you. So resist that temptation.

Being toxic  – and, crucially, being known to be toxic (!) reduces the chances of you being eaten.

In burnets, hydrogen cyanide is made safe by adding a sugar group to create a cyanogenic glucoside. This changes the properties of the compound and makes it safe for the animal to store within its tissue.

If the tissue of the moth is damaged by an attacker, a special enzyme is summoned to snip away the sugar group – releasing hydrogen cyanide like an angry Jack Russel.

Burnets absorb the components of this toxic substance from their food plants. Nothing new here. But, sneakily, they are also able to synthesise cyanogenic glucosides within their own bodies; independent of any potential plant source.

If – during the throes of passion – my partner presented me with a love token of hydrogen cyanide, I’d probably call the police. But female six-spot burnet moths welcome this nuptial gift with open… er, legs… [they don’t have arms!]

Females will actively assess a male’s fitness based on his ability to provide cyanogenic glucosides; even creating a cloud of mixed cyanide and pheromone “perfume” to let passing males know when they’re in the mood. Perhaps this is the equivalent of giving diamond cufflinks, with the aim of receiving a proportionately more expensive necklace in return?

Clearly, these compounds are important to the moths for defence, communication and also as a store of sugar and nitrogen. Thanks to Mika Zagrobelny for a fascinating presentation about her research in this area, which I was thoroughly intrigued by.

Another thing that impressed me about the zygaenidae is their extraordinary beauty. I know I will be unpopular for saying this, but us Brits have been short changed. Our zygaenidae – lovely as they are – represent variations on a theme of dusty black, red and metallic green in Foresters [but we don’t have those on Mull].

Venture out of the UK and things get pretty wild. We’re talking mimicry complexes, brightly coloured abdomens and anal plumes. Even a dash of yellow and orange – heaven forbid. Gerhard Tarmann and Axel Hofmann [presenting work on American and African groups respectively] have done much to broaden my lepidopteran horizons.

Axel’s outstanding macro photographs revealed an abundance of colour and texture that I had hitherto been ignorant of. I also enjoyed his lively account of conducting field work: split between ferreting about in bushes looking for moth larvae, and smuggling a burgeoning collection of flora and fauna into nice South African hotels. Not to mention the urgency of identifying rare moths in the presence of Giraffes, which were probably eating them as fast as he was finding them. 

I’m pleased to say that my first impression of what moth enthusiasts are “like” has proved to be accurate. My type specimen was, of course, Alan Skeates.

Dr Tom Prescott talks to the group about Glengorm’s grazing regime 



Alan is area recorder for Argyll & Bute; along with Anne Thompson and Dr Tom Prescott, Alan has been a guiding light as I navigate the unfamiliar waters of moth identification and conservation. His enthusiasm and willingness to share knowledge seem to be characteristic of his species – as is a tendency to wander off in search of moths at the very slightest opportunity [getting the group to and from the shore was a little bit like herding cats]. 

Both myself and the Nelson family were delighted to receive such positive feedback from the delegates about our burnet habitat. Though we’re new to the game and don’t always get it right, it’s good to know that we’re moving in the right direction.

I was really proud to host part of the symposium on our site.

Moth on, everyone.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

Delegates enjoy some unexpected sunshine as they examine our species-rich grassland!