Moths and Butterflies Workshop at the Natural History Museum

On Friday 25th June, our Museum Council students visited he Oxford Natural History Museum to explore moths and butterflies as part of a Rumble Museum project to explore the moths and butterflies in our collections and on site at Cheney. We were met by museum learning officer Sarah Lloyd who took us to a classroom to show us some specimens on moths and butterflies and to introduce some important themes and characteristics.

The first thing we explored is the great diversity of the insect population, and what tends to define an insect (six legs, three segments to its body, and often two pairs of wings). We then looked at some beautiful specimens and Sarah asked the students to work out which ones were moths and which were butterflies. People tended to sort them out according to colourful and less colourful, though in fact, moths can be very colourful indeed.

Sarah explained how defining characteristics of moths were that they had feathery, tapered antennae rather than club shaped ones. They also tended to rest with their wings out rather than folded.  But actually, there is not much of a difference between moths and butterflies - it is more about attitudes of people towards them. Insect specialists prefer to refer to them all as "lepidoptera", as they find the categories of "moth" and "butterfly" not very helpful.

We looked at the underside of some of the specimens, which was completely unexpected. A stunning blue butterfly had a pale brown underside with startling eye shapes. Another looked exactly like a pair of leaves on the underside. Sarah explained how having a flash of bright colour was very useful as it distracted potential predators when flying, but when at rest, the underside camouflage was more important. We also saw some moths which had evolved to look like certain sort of bees.

We looked at some of the butterflies and moths under a microscope, where we could see the incredibly detailed colour of the tiny scales that make up their wings, as well as the fuzziness of their bodies. Sarah showed us some home made traps that we could make at home, or for our forthcoming moth night.

Finally, we were able to explore the insect galleries at the museum and see some of the amazing specimens on display. It was very exciting to be back at the museum after so long, and the workshop was the perfect introduction to our forthcoming work exploring which moths visit Cheney's site, and what we can do to encourage butterflies and moths. Thank you very much to Sarah and the Natural History Museum for a very enjoyable visit.