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Lawrence Knight - The `Moth Man' of Chesterfield

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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Lawrence Knight – The Moth Man of Chesterfield.

On The Wings of Desire

During my pilgrimage through Derbyshire collecting material for a recent series of magazine features I met many interesting characters, ordinary folk with extraordinary tales to tell.

`over fifteen thousand colourful specimens'

One such is Mr. Lawrence Knight of Wellington Street, New Whittington, who’s lifelong passion for lepidoptery – that’s the study of moths and butterflies – has given him a self-taught encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, amassed him a fabulous collection of over fifteen thousand colourful specimens – and earned him the nickname of `The Moth Man’ .

Lawrence was born at Barrow Hill almost eighty years ago in August 1925 and came to New Whittington when he was just five years old. When I asked him when it was that he had become a devotee and lover of the natural world, his instant response was, “When I was born!”

What about his passion for moths and butterflies?

`it leaked - so I kept caterpillars in it instead'

“Well, I suppose that came about more by accident than design, he mused,….

“My dad was a keen naturalist and fisherman and he wanted to teach me about fish, so when I was three or four years old he made me a fish tank out of some window glass, using wood and putty to hold it together - but it leaked – so I kept caterpillars in it instead”. Lawrence’s first accidental success at breeding came about when the caterpillars in his fish tank became transformed, or rather metamorphosised into beautifully coloured and marked tortoiseshell butterflies, and by his teens he had observed and understood the complete process of metamorphosis.

He began collecting specimens in the black-out during the war when he was on night firewatch duty and his collection grew gradually over the years until he retired twenty years ago – and then it rocketed when Lawrence turned his attention to his large garden!

He created a veritable butterfly and moth heaven with glasshouses, gazebos, plenty of shelter and special food plants and pheremones to attract his favourite species, the Garden Tiger moth and the Privet Hawk Moth– and tried his hand at breeding.

“For successful breeding you need to know the specific food plant and breeding habitat of each individual species, each is different, he said. For example, some moths lay one single egg whilst others lay a clutch of eggs, and some even lay eggs whilst in flight. Each species will only lay eggs on or near to a specific food plant thus ensuring a good food supply for the hatchling caterpillars, and the length of time of incubation is again dependent upon species. Some species live for months, whilst some live for just a handful of days. Many caterpillars when hatched eat at least some of the shell of the egg first, which is a major source of essential vitamins and, in some cases, special bacteria that assist the breakdown of their food.

The larva of Garden Tiger moth over-winters from around August as a small larva, feeds in spring and then emerges as an adult in July-August, but some autumnal egg layers whose caterpillars will hatch and feed during late September and October will pupate and over winter in this form, before emerging in their full glory the following year (moths emerge at all times of the year from January-December). There are so many species with so many variations that you need to be an expert to know about them all” said Lawrence.

His favourites are Hawk-moths:

“They’re the largest and most beautifully coloured and marked of all the British species, and relatively rare, with only seventeen species in Britain – and seven of those are migrants”, he lamented.

“The Latin name for the family is `Sphingidae’ and they include the Pine Hawk-moth, Elephant Hawk-moth, Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Eyed Hawk-moth, and my favourite which I bred successfully in my glasshouse, the Privet Hawk-moth” – which incidentally, Lawrence candidly observed, “has droppings like miniature hand grenades!!”.

Lawrence was fascinated to watch the seemingly miraculous cycle of development as the caterpillars turned from pupae to moth or from chrysalis to butterfly; he was astonished to watch as “a mucous blob of viscous fluid transformed itself before my eyes, took shape and slowly solidified into a beautifully colourful pair of wet, quivering, gossamer wings”.

As the morning sun warmed their newly formed wings and stirred them to life, Lawrence remembers the thrill as each one took flight: “ I’ve bred thousands of moths and butterflies since then, he said, but I still get that same exhilarating feeling when each one takes flight for the first time. It’s nature at its most wonderful”.

Indeed it is – but of course, there are those who will think it a strange, pointless and somewhat cruel hobby to stick pins in moths, and that only a weird kind of eccentric individual would keep thousands of dead insects named, filed and archived away in specially constructed cabinets. But Lawrence Knight is no mere tabulator of specimens, indeed his passion for moths goes far deeper than the pins he sticks through them!

He is also an entomologist with an astonishing collection of giant beetles, spiders (including tarantulas), dragonflies that look like miniature pterodactyls, somewhat scary eight inch long armour-plated grasshoppers, and numerous other insects, and says that ever since his boyhood, he has “nurtured a desire to uncover the sense of design that underlies the details of the natural world”.

Lawrence’s view of the subject is more aesthetic than scientific, and he feels that there is something exquisitely metaphysical, even mystical about his approach to natures plenitude and complexity, and he delights in “the great cosmic mystery of camouflage – the game of hide and seek that God seems to play with human beings – especially with moths!”

Moths, it would seem, are a vital cog in the naturally balanced wheel of our ecological biodiversity – and you may be surprised to learn that the study of moths is of vital import and immense value to the Government – so important in fact, that a National Moth Night and a National Macro Moth Recording Scheme have recently been launched.

Environmental Scientist Barry Prater, who is the regional coordinator of Butterfly Conservation, a National Charity which has a regional branch in every county of England and Ireland told me:-

“Moths are sensitive indicators of the health of the natural environment, and both specimens and recorded data collected by individuals provides a valuable resource for the Department of the Environment - as well as to ecologists, conservationists, natural historians, museums of natural history and environmental scientists”.

These bodies inform environmental science in general, and provide data and guidance on biodiversity and ecological issues to environmental planning and strategy departments – all of which helps increasingly to plan and manage the delicate balance of different eco systems within our national environment.

Mr. Prater explained, “There are around 2,500 species of moth in Britain and Ireland, generally divided into two categories simply by size, thus macro-moths and micro-moths; of the 900 macro-moths many species appear to have undergone dramatic reductions in both numbers and range over the past fifty years; (coincidentally this equates to a period when fewer and fewer people collect specimens and it is generally accepted that, apart from very rare species, collecting (usually now only acceptable for scientific purposes) has not been a major factor in the decline of any species of lepidoptera in the United Kingdom); But an accurate assessment of the current status is impossible because there is no national database. The aim of National Moth Night and the National Moth Recording Scheme is to coordinate the results with the information gathered from our network of county moth recorders into a National Database”.

Lawrence has his own views about the rapidly declining moth population, - “Pesticides and the increase in traffic on the roads – and of course, moths are very susceptible to changes in weather and habitat too” he said.

I asked the perennial question about the difference between moths and butterflies; “the antenna and bodies of moths are generally thicker, and while butterflies require the sun’s heat before they can fly, moths are entirely different and generally don’t fly until after dusk, when many generate sufficient heat by vibrating their wings at incredible speeds before becoming airborne.

Most species rest during the day but are very difficult to see because their camouflage is so good and they blend perfectly with their surroundings”.

I learned that many species favour a specific food plant and that many camouflage themselves accordingly, each species in its own habitat.

I was surprised to learn that different species fly at different times;

“Most species fly during the hours of darkness, explained the Moth Man, but a few fly just before dawn, whilst for example, the Garden Tigers time of flight is around midnight. There are also day flying moths such as the Burnets, Foresters, Cinnabars, Mother Shipton and Latticed Heath moths, but strangely, no moths appear to fly at all on bright moonlit nights”. *note (this last point is not technically true. one theory is that just as many moths fly on moonlit nights (although the drop in temperature can affect them) but the scents produced by females to attract them tend to be higher in the air (lower to the ground when damp or overcast) and this therefore means less are attracted to light or seen low down.)

Lawrence explained how he caught them:

“ The best way is by using an ultra violet mercury vapour lamp, which is employed by most lepidopterists. But there is another way, the `old-fashioned’ way, he explained: It’s called `sugaring’, you take some beer, add a few spoonfulls of sugar, honey or fruit juice, chop an apple into small pieces and boil up the whole mixture and just before nightfall, you paint the mixture on the trunks of trees”. But does it work?….. “It does when you can’t afford a mercury vapour lamp!” said Lawrence.

He has never learned to drive a car, so his vast collection of lepidoptera are confined to species collected entirely in this area of North Derbyshire.

He met and married wife Muriel in 1947 and this year they celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary, and although she doesn’t share his passion for lepidoptery, she admitted that: “His enthusiasm is infectious, and over the years he’s talked me into spending many nights out there in the dark painting this stuff on trees and fence posts - I dread to think how we would have explained it to anyone who saw us!”.

But was it all worth it? What of Lawrence Knight’s vast collection? Does it have any aesthetic or scientific value? Or is he simply a `weird eccentric individual’ – and is his collection simply that of a man with an obsession?

Nick Moyes of the Natural History Department at Derby Museum has the last word:

“Indiscriminate collecting can do untold damage to local eco-systems and conservation comes first and foremost for all discerning lepidopterists. However, individual devotees like Lawrence Knight are the lifeblood of scientific recording. We depend upon people like him and their collections for valuable visible information, and a collection which covers a seventy year period is invaluable and should be preserved, not only for the specimens it contains, but for the recorded ecological history that they represent”.

So now you know what a lepidopterist is – and by the way, National Moth Night is on July 9th this year, so if you happen to be in the Whittington area and see a mysterious character lurking around trees with a paintbrush, don’t be alarmed - it’s only Lawrence Knight, the Moth Man!

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