Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 5, 2020

Is it a wasp, is it a moth….?

Lunar Hornet Moth 6 (scaled)

The superb Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis).

It was Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) who, while exploring the Amazon with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), first began to realise the startling similarities between certain species of butterfly.  He discovered that a number of species of non-poisonous butterflies very closely resembled other completely unrelated, but poisonous (by dint of incorporating toxins from foodplants consumed as caterpillars) species.  He reasoned that over the course of evolution (which of course his travelling companion Wallace was destined to make great strides towards providing a provable theory for) the harmless species had come to incorporate the warning colours of their toxic lookalikes in order to benefit from the reduced predation that that conferred.  Many instances of this so called Batesian mimicry have since been identified, perhaps most easily observed through mimics of stinging insects.  There are many species of hoverfly, for instance, that resemble bumblebees, honeybees and wasp, and even a few beetles that do likewise.  Oh, and the odd moth too.

I’ve had a good year for clearwing moths, in as much as I have seen two.  Most years it would be zero.  There are perhaps fifteen species of clearwing at large in the UK, some of which a rare, none of which are common.  They are all wasp mimics.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to encounter a fabulous Lunar Hornet Moth, an impressive beast and and more than a half-decent Hornet lookalike.  It was my first clearwing.

This year it was two of the much smaller, but still beautiful species that I happened upon.  The Red-belted Clearwing was nectaring on bramble blossom in a friend’s suburban garden, that I noticed while idly scanning the blooms for bees.  Luckily I had a camera to hand.  The lovely Six-belted Clearwing was new to my eyes, an entirely unexpected discovery while browsing among Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus – the larval foodplant) on the off-chance of some of the scarcer bumblebees I knew to be in the area.

It’s amazing what you can find when you’re not really looking for it.

Red-belted Clearwing - Chalkwell 2

A Red-belted Clearwing (Synanthedon myopaeformis) in an Essex garden.

Six-belted Clearwing

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis), Hadleigh Country Park, Essex.


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