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10–240 million migrant moths will reach the UK this spring

29 August 2012

Scientists at Rothamsted Research, working with UK scientific colleagues at the Universities of Exeter, Greenwich, York and Oxford, the Lund University in Sweden and the Met Office, combined data from entomological radars and ground-based light-traps to show that annual migrations are highly adaptive in the noctuid moth Autographa gamma (silver Y), a major agricultural pest that migrates northward every spring from its winter breeding-grounds in North Africa and the Middle East to its temporary summer breeding grounds in Northern Europe.

Silver Y moth. Credit: Ian Woiwod
Silver Y moth. Credit: Ian Woiwod

Lead author, Dr. Jason Chapman, of the Department of AgroEcology at Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC noted that "billions of insects immigrate annually to, or within, the temperate zone, providing major ecosystem services as well as, in some cases, causing serious crop damage and spreading diseases of humans and their livestock."

Previous to this work, it was believed billions of insects migrate to exploit temperate zones, but their offspring seldom return, the 'Pied Piper' effect. But this work shows that after a period of intense northward flight in the spring, when 10-240 million immigrants reach the United Kingdom, summer breeding leads to a four-fold increase in the abundance of adults, most of which return southward in the autumn. Thus, the authors suggest, the moth's poleward movement not only results in population growth but also contributes to its survival as a species by facilitating summer breeding. Dr Chapman said that "these findings may require a fundamental change in our understanding of insect migration."

Professor Keith Goulding, leader of the Delivering Sustainable Systems research programme at the world renowned Rothamsted Research said "This is tremendously exciting research that is opening up new ways of tracking and understanding the movement and development of agricultural pests. A better understanding of their lifecycles will enable us to develop sustainable control methods."


Notes to editors

The publication 'Seasonal migration to high latitudes results in major reproductive benefits in an insect' (10.1073/pnas.1207255109) is available at

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 160 years. It receives strategic funding from BBSRC to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

About Global Food Security

Global Food Security is a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the Research Councils, Executive Agencies and Government Departments.
Through Global Food Security the partners are working together to support research to meet the challenge of providing the world’s growing population with a sustainable,  and secure supply of safe, nutritious and affordable high quality food from less land and with lower inputs.
Partner and sponsor organisations are:

  • Research Councils UK – comprising:
    • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
    • Economic and Social Research Council
    • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
    • Medical Research Council
    • Natural Environment Research Council
  • Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Department of Health
  • Department for International Development
  • Food Standards Agency
  • Government Office for Science
  • Scottish Government
  • Technology Strategy Board
  • Welsh Government