Sunday, 2 July 2017

Bullying butterflies.

Hunting for butterflies sounds like a bit of a joke. You might imagine and old clergyman out with a net and a killing jar, or a man wearing shorts like a boy scout, but with a beard and thick spectacles, waist deep in meadow grasses. In fact, butterfly collecting is still big business. I remember going to a forest on top of the Uluguru mountains in Tanzania to find quite a sophisticated trapping operation in progress, and this happens across the tropics. The collectors who buy these butterflies are mostly in wealthy countries like ours and the victims end up in glass cases.

Needless to say, when I go butterfly hunting it is with a camera, not a net and it is quite a challenging sport. Having said that there is the lazy way, which is to find a thistle flower, some lavender flowers or a buddleia bush and just wait. If it's not too windy and there are butterflies about they will come to you. I've had great success with this method but mostly with the big common  garden butterflies such as tortoiseshells, red admirals, peacocks and brimstones. The rarer butterflies tend to be a bit more picky about where to live and which plants to visit.

In a flower-rich meadow you would expect butterflies to flit from flower to flower like bees do, but there's much more going on than that. A solo migratory butterfly, such as a clouded yellow, never seems to stop flying. They may just be migrating through or they may be looking for a mate, neither of which involves landing on a flower.  Other species don't travel far at all, but they still don't spend all day feeding. These butterflies are quite territorial and so, although they might start the day sunning themselves to warm up, they need to find a spot to show off and attract a mate, just like birds do, except that butterflies don't sing (at least I've never heard one.) They need to perform a dance, and perhaps use an attractive perfume too.

Along a shaded path there might be dappled sunlight. Each golden-green sunny glade is a stage for a street- performing woodland butterfly who will breakdance himself dizzy to attract a mate. He will defend his pitch against other butterflies and even other insects such as bees and hover-flies.

Green-veined white
You and I might think that one bit of a meadow is much like any other, but butterflies don't see the world in the way that we do. The flowers in the meadow glow for them like starbursts and a flowery patch is to be desired and fought over. Yes, butterflies are selfish, stroppy, competitive, bullying and aggressive!

This week I was the old man in shorts who was wading through the long grasses of our Great Meadow. I had gone there with pupils from Spring Common Academy to read the meter on our water pump but was soon distracted by the thousands of butterflies we saw there. Not for the first time, I was frustrated in my attempts to get a sharp photograph of a butterfly because there was always a blade of grass in the way, or the insect moved. I soon realised that, every time a meadow brown or a ringlet landed, it got bumped off its perch by another butterfly.
Small skipper

It seemed to me that the small blues and skippers were not so competitive, but there were fewer of these and more flowers to go around.

The butterflies I was chasing were mostly engaged in mating and territorial behaviour so they didn't stay still for long. Later they would move on to laying eggs on the food plants that their caterpillars need, just a few eggs here and there, not stopping for long at all.

Marbled white with hitch-hiking fly.
When it comes to feeding, some plants are much more attractive than others, but butterflies are also attracted by smell. Purple emperors patrol the woodland rides at Fermyn Woods and come down to feed on......(you wont like this) droppings and urine. Many butterflies are attracted by spilled beer of fruit juice. They even gather on the corpses of dead animals and lick away at the gooey moisture they find.

My star find this week was a single marbled white butterfly, which did eventually settle. When I photographed it, I found that it had a fly sitting on it. I guess photo-bombing is another reason not to hang about.

You can listen to a podcast about butterflies at Paxton Pits at