Recording‎ > ‎

Recording techniques

You can use several methods to find out what species of moth are present at a site, none of which will kill or harm them.

Daytime searches

Many species of moth are day-flying, and like butterflies are best searched for on dry, still sunny days. A butterfly net is useful for catching them so that they can be seen at rest and identified. Some species, such as the burnet moths, are unlikely to be recorded using other methods such as light trapping. Gently disturbing vegetation can also be fruitful in locating species which may be hidden from view. Some of the smaller micro-moths you may also wish to use a sweep net, moving it back and forwards through the vegetation and then inspecting the bag for any moths you have disturbed.

Flowers and fruit

Like butterflies, many moths are attracted to certain types of plants, coming to feed on nectar both at night and by day.  Flowers that are particularly attractive to moths include those of buddleia, red valerian, heather, sallow and ivy. Searching by torchlight in the first couple of hours after dusk (called 'dusking') can be very rewarding.  Over-ripe fruit, such as bananas, can also attract moths (but it also attracts wasps too!).

Sugaring & Wine Ropes

Moths can also be attracted to artificial nectar sources.  These involve making a sticky, saturated solution of sugar, placing this in suitable locations and observing the visiting moths by torch in the first couple of hours after dusk. thicker solutions can be painted onto fence posts or thinner solutions use thick cord or cloth made from absorbent material and the cords/material hung from branches, shrubs, fences etc.

Suggested thick 'sugar' recipe: Heat about 500ml of brown ale (or cola) in a large pan and simmer for five minutes. Then stir in and dissolve about a kilogram of dark brown sugar, followed by a tin of black treacle. Simmer the mixture for two minutes and then allow it to cool before transferring it to a suitable container for carrying outside. A drop of rum stirred in before use is recommended, but not essential. Just before dusk, use a brush to paint the mixture at eye level onto tree trunks or fence posts.

Suggested 'wine rope' recipe:  Heat a bottle of cheap red wine in a pan, stir in and dissolve a kilogram of sugar. Allow to cool. Soak metre lengths of the cord or twisted cloth in the mixture. Drape these 'ropes' over low branches, bushes or fences just before dusk and later check for moths by torch-light.


Many moths are attracted to lights at night, though quite why they respond in this way remains unclear. An outside or porch light on after dark or a lighted window with the curtains open can attract many species. At holiday parks and camp sites, the toilet blocks, which are often lit at night, are well worth checking! Low-energy bulbs attract moths and are better for the environment. A white sheet hanging up with a bright torch shining on it can also be effective.

Light traps

By far the best way to see lots of moths is to use specifically designed moth traps. A trap running on a muggy night in July/August can catch over a thousand moths of up to a hundred species! A moth trap is basically a box with a special lamp inside and something for the moths to perch on or hide in. Three common kinds are available for sale - Heath trap, Skinner trap and Robinson trap - and all have different advantages and disadvantages and varying prices. It is also possible to make your own trap and some companies supply kits or electrics-only packages. Traps tend to use one of two main types of light sources - actinic and mercury vapour.  Both bulb-types emit large amounts of UV light which attracts moths. Actinic bulbs are lower wattage (6W-40W) and are cheap to run, and the lower wattages in particular make them suitable for running a portable trap powered by a car battery. Mercury vapour bulbs are usually more powerful (125W) and attracting more moths but cost more to run and need a mains power source or generator to power them. 

Information about moth traps, suppliers and other links is available on the Moths Count website. If you are thinking of buying a trap, it’s a good idea to go along to a public moth event and ask for advice from experts. It may also be possible to borrow a trap too - contact the local records centre to ask about this.

Searching for larvae

Searching for larvae can be the best way to detect some species. One is to search suitable food plants for caterpillars at dusk and after dark with a torch. Several species only feed at night and their eyes will reflect the light from your torch. Some species produce distinctive larval spinnings on their host plants that can  Another method is to ‘beat’ suitable trees and shrubs and catch what it is dislodged on a beating tray. These can either be purchased or made from a white sheet or pillowcase, stretched across two canes held in a cross. An even cheaper method is to use an old umbrella upside down!

Leaf mines

Some species of micro-moth larvae live within the leaves of their host plants. The blotches and markings left on the host plant leaves are often diagnostic (see the excellent  Other taxonomic groups (beetles, flies) may also create leaf mines so not all are caused by lepidopterans. Identification of the host plant will often narrow down the possible species considerably. Some of these leaf-miners are regarded as pests by gardeners.

Pheromone Lures

Some species of moth are not attracted to light at all and are also difficult to find during the daytime. Clearwing moths are the best example. Shortly after emerging from her pupa, female moths emit a pheromone in an attempt to attract a mate. Males are attracted to the pheromones, and synthetically produced pheromones which mimic the scent of the female can be used to attract and record males.

Information summarised from the Moths Count website and other sources