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Of all the insects at the Rec, the butterflies are surely the easiest to spot and their beauty and fragility reminds us of their fleeting existence. Some, like the Blues and Hairstreaks live for only four or five days, others two or three weeks; just long enough to ensure the propagation of the next generation
Butterflies belong to the group called Lepidoptera, which comes from the Greek meaning ‘wings with scales’ and it’s the exquisitely patterned wings that are the their most distinctive feature. The wings are formed by thousands of tiny scales made of chitin and incorporating photonic crystals. It isn’t pigment that gives the wings their colours and iridescence, but the extent to which these crystals reflect or absorb light from different parts of the spectrum. The colours perform a variety of functions. They can be used to attract mates, as a means of camouflage, or to fool predators.
A Gatekeeper butterfly in the garden at the Rec
click image to enlarge
For example, some butterflies have spots that give the appearance of large eyes suggesting a much more formidable opponent, whilst others use bright colours such as red or orange, to mimic the effect of species in which those colours signal the presence of toxins. Male butterflies also have special scales on the upper side of the forewings that produce pheromones to attract females
However, when they first emerge from their chrysalis, the butterflies’ wings are crumpled and useless and this is when they’re at their most vulnerable. The wings are expanded by pumping body fluid (haemolymph) through the veins, a process that can take up to an hour. Before flying the butterfly also has to allow the exoskeleton to harden, and adjust the proboscis, which is a long, hollow coiled tube that uncoils to reach nectar deep within flowers.
Large White photographed in the meadow at the Rec
Click to enlarge image
Once the butterfly is ready to take flight, its short life is entirely devoted to producing the next generation. Fortunately it is equipped with all the sensory apparatus to maximise its chances of finding suitable mates and appropriate food plants for the caterpillars, on which it lays its eggs.
Butterflies have compound eyes, which give them a wide field of vision and enables them to see more of the visible light spectrum than humans, including ultraviolet. Their antennae are clubbed at the ends and are used for smell and balance, and their feet are equipped with taste sensors. These combined senses
are vital for locating suitable sources of nectar, which supply the energy needs of the butterfly. Butterflies don’t put on any growth and are unable to chew food, but their proboscis acts like a straw to suck up nectar, sap and juice from rotting fruit, to power their flight. They also need salt and minerals and may be drawn to muddy puddles to satisfy this need.
The sense of sight and smell is again essential in enabling them to identify suitable mates, which is imperative given their short life span. Having mated, the female butterfly is able to seek out plants on which her caterpillars will be able
to feed, and for some species their requirements are very specific. She will drum on the leaves of the plant to get it to release juices and then chemo receptors on the back of her legs will be able to detect these chemicals and ‘identify’ the plant’s suitability. The female then lays her eggs to begin the life cycle of the next generation
There are about 60 species of butterfly in Britain, the majority of which are permanent residents. Although there are a few species that don’t overwinter well in our climate, and migrate here from mainland Europe, such as the Peacock, Clouded Yellow and Red Admiral; a remarkable feat for such small creatures. Those who are resident, enter a dormant phase as the colder weather approaches and each species overwinters either as an egg, caterpillar, pupa or adult. The butterflies that spend their ‘lockdown’ as adults are the first to be seen on the wing when the spring arrives, such as the Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell.
Ringlet butterfly photgraphed at the Rec
Click to enklarge image
Many butterflies are now scarce and others only seen in colonies in very specific habitats, but amongst the species you are most likely to spot in the Rec are: Small White, Large White, Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Small Tortoiseshell, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Comma, Peacock, Ringlet, Small Copper, Common Blue and Holly Blue.
So why not get yourself round to the Rec to take part in the Butterfly Conservation Trust’s ‘Big Butterfly Count’ which is held annually, and this year runs until 8th August. It will only take 15 minutes of your time and the results, whether you see butterflies or not, will provide valuable information about how these beautiful ephemeral creature are faring and the wider state of our environment. For more information about identification and recording, please visit the Butterfly Conservation Trust website………and don’t forget to post any sightings on FOPRs Noticing Nature Facebook page as well.
Words by Denise Long
Photos courtesy Bruce Larner