03 October 2014

England: some common butterflies

Did you know that the word butterfly comes from the ancient idea that insects (or witches disguised as butterflies!) consume butter and milk that has been left uncovered? Well, that’s one possibility I found anyway.

There seemed to be a lot more butterflies in the UK than in my native New Zealand. In fact, there are 59 common species and a lot more uncommon. I didn't see that many while out on my strolls but here are a few that fluttered my way.

Once common throughout England, Wales and southern Scotland, the Comma suffered a severe decline in the mid 1800s, possibly due to the reduction in Hop farming, which was then the butterfly’s key larval foodplant. Luckily, it has made an amazing comeback since the 1960s, with its caterpillars now preferring to eat common nettle. Good on them – somebody / something needs to rid the world of nettle!

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)
As you might guess from the name, this is the most common blue butterfly found in the British Isles. This little guy is probably a male as the female is a much less showy mixture of brown and blue (as so many females are in the animal / insect world).

Green-veined White (Pieris napi)
All gardeners hate the white butterfly – this is not that butterfly! The poor little Green-veined White suffers from that comparison, so when you see a little white fluttering through parks and gardens, meadows and woodlands, please don’t assume it’s the bad guy.

Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)
Skippers are cute. All butterflies have 4 wings, two on each side, but the skipper’s forewings are as long as its underwings and seem to sit in a more upright position than other butterflies, and they flit through the countryside, in short buzzing movements, from one stalk of tall grass to another.

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)
They live in meadows, they’re brown – that much is probably obvious! They are one of the most common and most widespread of all British butterflies. They may look like Plain Janes but they have eyes on their wings and they are very pretty.

Peacock (Aglais io)
With those big spectacular eyes on its wings, I think it’s obvious why this butterfly has the name ‘Peacock’. But those eyes are there to warn potential predators to stay away – it’s one of the most beautiful ‘don’t eat me’ messages you’ll ever see.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
The Red Admiral is dressed to kill, in black velvet with striking red bands across her wings, but she prefers the garden to the catwalk. She’s an immigrant, an exotic beauty from central Europe, but she’s now made herself at home throughout Britain.

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)
Excuse me for stating the obvious: this little beauty is speckled and it lives in woodland but there’s a twist to this story. According to what I read online, the ones that live in northern parts of Britain have white spots, the ones in the south have orange spots. This butterfly must’ve been on its holidays – it’s got white spots but I found it in Devon. Go figure!

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
It’s small and pretty and it’s in trouble. Its numbers are fluctuating, which may be due to a small parasitic fly that feeds on its caterpillars, though that’s just one of the theories. Let's hope it fights back!