There is love in the air!

Many creatures give off pheromones (including us!), which can be used to trigger a number of types of behaviour, including attracting a mate, sexual arousal, bonding (mother to baby), claiming territories, raising an alarm and even as a warning to back off!

I have just acquired a pheromone which (hopefully) attracts male emperor moths. (If any pretty girls turn up, I won’t be that upset!) This particular group of scents are called bombykol pheromones and are secreted by female moths to attract their male counterparts.

Male emperor moth and phial
A stunning male emperor moth attracted to a pheromone-impregnated capsule.
Note the huge feathered antennae, which it uses to “smell” the scent.

Male emperor moths fly by day and the females fly by night. Female emperor moths have a gland at the end of the abdomen which emits a pheromone scent to attract the male moths, who use their large, feathery antennae to detect the pheromones drifting past them on the wind. Unbelievable, when you think how many other scents there must be blowing around at any given time (farm animals, flowers, pollutants etc), it is believed that male emperor moths can detect the pheromones from several kilometres away and then home in on the female.

So at the weekend, Rosie (my lurcher) and I set off for the New Forest, which has plenty of suitable heathland/moorland habitat particularly favoured by emperor moths. I parked up in a likely looking spot and we walked away from the road for a short while, Rosie gambolling around pleased to be on a brand new walk, while I rather excitedly clutched my little phial of scent.

I took the little pheromone-impregnated capsule out of the sealed bag and placed it on a piece of dead wood at about waist high. I stood and waited, slightly self-consciously, imagining the invisible scent drifting off across the scrubby heather landscape. Rosie sat down close by, hoping that this was not going to be a long stop. A couple out walking their dog passed by a short distance away and I prayed that they would not come over to ask me what I was up to!

After what could only have been a couple of minutes at the most, a large insect flew rapidly past me – was it a peacock butterfly, or could it have been an emperor? Having obviously overshot, it came fluttering noisily back, a wonderful male emperor moth – stunning! But wait, there are two! No, three!

Over the next half an hour or so, I moved the phial a couple of times and must have attracted a dozen different male emperors. They were not the easiest subject to photograph as they never really settled for any length of time at all, but instead frantically flew around trying to locate the “female”. Even when they did briefly land near to the phial, their wings vibrated excitedly and then they were soon off again.

Rosie looking bored
Rosie with a very bored expression!

I then began to feel rather guilty that I had caused such a frenzy of excitement amongst these beautiful creatures – all of which was obviously to no avail. Meanwhile, Rosie, lying patiently nearby, had acquired a very bored expression and so I popped the phial back into the sealed bag and continued on my walk.

As I looked out across the wide open landscape, I realised that I had briefly tuned into just one of the many amazing species that inhabit this country, and yet so secretly go about their fascinating lives, completely unbeknown to the vast majority of us.


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