Large White

P1090033This Large White butterfly was one of several in the gardens of Coleton Fishacre house, near Dartmouth in Devon. The house  – owned by the National Trust – was closed because of Covid-19, but the garden, grounds and paths to the South West Coast Path were open and there was plenty to be enjoyed.

Watching these very large Large Whites I was amazed to see how much bigger they were than the Large Whites in our garden in Cheshire. These were huge, like a species of superbutterfly! Maybe something to do with the habitat, the soil, or just that it’s often warmer and sunnier in Devon.

P1090032According to The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland there can be up to three broods, spanning April to autumn. The second brood flies from July to September, and are often more heavily marked with black and grey than the earlier spring brood. This one is clearly  from the  second emergence.

 

Their caterpillars are poisonous enough to deter predators, and even though gardeners might not like what are commonly called “cabbage whites”, they’re welcome in our garden. We don’t grow brassicas and we encourage wildlife.

 

Skipper – Small or Essex?

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This Skipper butterfly was posing obligingly on a thistle in Tatton Park last week, but what with grandchildren staying, I’ve only now got around to having a close look at the quick photo I took of it en route to Home Farm for a hands-on visit for the children.

My first thought was “Small Skipper”, but then I looked it up in the excellent Butterflies of Britain & Ireland by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington and was immediately torn between it being a Small Skipper or an Essex Skipper. Oh they are so similar!

The distribution of the Small Skipper covers much of the UK; the Essex Skipper is more confined to the south and east…BUT… it’s described as “expanding west and north”, so it could be from Essex, maybe visiting its cousins in Cheshire?!

The crunch comes with the description for making an ID of this butterfly: “…examine the curved tips of the anntennae in order to see the colour of their undersurfaces.This is best done in early evening….creep up on them on all fours until you are head-on and can look upwards at the anntennae….the Small Skipper has antennae that are dull orange or brown underneath the tips, whereas those of the Essex Skipper are glossy black….”

Having examined the ilustrations in the book very carefully, I’m taking a punt on it being a Small Skipper. There’s no way I could home in any futher on an enlargement to see more antennae detail, but I’ve learned something new about this butterfly – and – I was amused to read “…many experienced lepidopterists are unable to distinguish between Essex and Small Skippers.”!

That’s music to the ears of this relative novice.

Baftas, Brexit and Insects

I awake this morning to the news headlines on the radio. First up is the Baftas – hot news at the moment as The Favourite has scooped an armful of awards, with Olivia Colman getting the Best Actress accolade. She was briliant, as were her supporting female leads; the film was odd and slightly boring (my view) and seemed filled with characters who were distinctly nasty to each other. I far preferred Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody. But then I’m a push over for films with a spot of happiness, some poignant sadness and with music in them.

The news moves on to Brexit; in third place comes a mention of the alarming lack of insects, news of which has just broken.

Back to Brexit – that ongoing saga of unbelievable self-harm which parliament, government, the Prime Minister and some of the country seems to be willingly – almost eagerly? – putting itself through in the name of the “will of the people”. What tosh. It’s the most dangerous emergency the UK has faced sine WW2.

Boris Johnson is being interviewed and he’s using the quiet, well-modulated voice he’s no doubt been schooled in using, in an attempt to be taken seriously as he spouts something or other I may or may not have heard before. I’ve had enough of this man and the porkies he peddled during the referendum campaign so I turn off the radio.

I don’t need to hear anymore. The item on Insects is given little prominence and comes low down on the list. In fact, it’s something which is infinitely more important, scary and of long term importance and significance than a no-deal Brexit.

There’s a global decline of insects. A recent scientific review of insect numbers reports that 40% of species are undergoing dramatic rates of decline. We can’t do without them, whether we like them or not. We need them for pollination; they ensure that 75% of crops in the world are pollinated. And we need food.

Insects provide food for birds, bats and small mammals. They are good for the soil and they keep the number of pests (like flies) down. Loss of habitat and use of fertilisers and pesticides are to blame, along with climate breakdown. Most insect decline comes from Europe and North America.

So what can we do?

1) Make your garden or patch more insect friendly. Plant to attract insects – encourage the bees and butterflies. Don’t use plastic grass (horrible dead stuff – and it’s plastic too). Leave a wild patch on your lawn for the insects. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be there.

2) Don’t use pesticides. At all. There are other ways. One of them is leaving things be as much as you can. The worst that can happen is that some plants will be eaten by caterpillars….but then you’ll have the butterflies and moths too.

3) Buy organic or grow some of your own fruit and veg.

Camberwell Beauty

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Reading Patrick Barkham’s book The Butterfly Isles I was transported back to south London, where I grew up. I’d reached the chapter on urban butterflies where he describes Coldharbour Lane and the bus station at Camberwell Green. Immediately I was once again 9 years old, with my mum, sitting on the top deck of a red London bus on my way to my dancing class at Kennington Oval.

The bus route took us past a huge colourful mosaic of a Camberwell Beauty butterfly, set high up on the front of the Samuel Jones & Co factory, which produced gummed paper shapes. I was fascinated by this butterfly, ever after wanting to see one. I never managed to do so in the UK. They are very rare visitors and I had to wait until 1982 before I saw several for real in Sweden. That was memorable – I still recall how I couldn’t quite believe my eyes!

The Camberwell Beauty has stayed with me as being rather special. My mum bought me a gummed paper shape puzzle of this butterfly with a cardboard shape to base the pieces on. I still have it. It’s a childhood memento that I wouldn’t part with.

What I was interested to discover from Barkham’s book is that Coldharbour Lane ( not an especially nice place these days), was once known as Cool Arbour Lane, where there were green meadows and willow trees, a rural habitat suitable for this butterfly and its caterpillars.

 

Purple Emperor

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Emperor feasting on horse manure

I’m currently reading Patrick Barkham’s excellent book The Butterfly Isles in which he describes the summer when, as an amateur enthusiast, he travelled throughout the British Isles seeking out all 59 species of native British butterflies in one year.ButterflyBarkham

Now this may sound a bit geeky and quirky (it is!) but if you like butterflies and have done so since you were a child (like me), reading it becomes a bit compulsive. It kept me quiet over the Christmas holidays.

It’s a well-written travelogue which reads like an adventure/detective story as each butterfly is sought and seen in various UK locations. Some of the butterflies I’ve seen, some I’ve yet to see, and I know I need to get my ID of the various kinds of fritillaries worked out a bit better than they are now. But I can ID quite a few species without help from a book. One of those is the magical Purple Emperor.

I’d seen plenty of illustrations and photos of this magnificent butterfly but, until a few years ago, had never seen one for real. My first sighting of this large, stunning butterfly was in France, in the Dordogne region. It was special. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the purple flash and sheen on its wings. It landed on the ground outside the facilities block on the lushly vegetated campsite I was staying on. With a nearby fig tree already dropping ripened fruit, it may have been attracted by this. I had no camera with me; I was on the way to the loo, but it made my day seeing my first Purple Emperor.

A year or so later, on a rough country path by the same campsite, I saw another Emperor. This time I had my camera and the butterfly ignored me as it gorged itself on horse manure. A royal feast for Emperors – they go in for “disgusting” in a big way.

Having read Barkham’s description and experience of this butterfly, I now see, looking at my photo, what he means about its muscular, hefty body and its yellow proboscis probing deep into the manure as it feasts. A treat for the Emperor, and a treat for me too, to see it at such close quarters.