2016 in Butterflies

I thought I had probably seen my last butterfly of 2016 when I started to put together this collection for 2016 – only to see a peacock flitting around on my lunchtime walk yesterday. Sunny weather or disturbance can bring out some of our hibernating species during the winter so the ‘season’ never truly ends!

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This green-veined white butterfly was feeding on the greater stitchwort flowers in the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve Treswell Woods earlier this year. A closer view reveals the yellow pollen from the anthers on the legs of this butterfly which will likely be transferred to the next stitchwort flower on which the butterfly alights. This act of pollination is the reward which the flowers get in return for their nectar they provide.
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This is a close-up photo of a orange-tip butterfly – I love the chequer-board green eyes. This individual was resting with folded wings on a white flower and their camouflage really is superb in this pose – until their open their wings and reveal those gaudy orange wing-tips from which they derive their name.
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This year was a good one for dingy skippers – I was lucky enough to see them at a number of different sites.This was at a Warwickshire Wildlife Site – Harbury Spoilbank – where grizzled skippers and green hairstreaks are also to be found. This is a male and a female pre-mating in the low vegetation.
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Another skipper from another Warwickshire Wildlife Site – this time at Ufton Fields. This is the grizzled skipper, a tiny little butterfly which could easily be mistaken for a moth at first glance as it zips past. This one is feeding on a speedwell flower.
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This is one of the UK’s rarest species – the wood white taken at Ryton Woods in Warwickshire. I took a walk around the rides hoping to spot this species and was just about to give up hope when this one appeared, bouncing along the edge of the rides. Their flight is slow and delicate and the males spend much of their time patrolling in search of females on the vegetation. I followed this one a while and got just one or two photos before he fluttered on over some dense scrub away from the path and out of sight.
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This is a common blue butterfly perched on one of their favourite food plants – the bird’s foot trefoil. I like this photo as you can see the curled tongue protruding. This long tongue straightens when they feed, allowing them to reach nectar from deep within the flowers and to access resources that many insects cannot.
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This photograph of a common blue was taken at sunset at Muston Meadows NNR in Leicestershire. The butterflies settle on vegetation such as this, always seemingly adopting this downwards-facing pose, at the end of the day. This one tried several locations before finding a position it was happy with. The butterflies spend the night roosting like this, ready to awaken when the temperatures rise again in the morning.
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This orange tip was displaying the colouration which gives the species its name, although it is only in fact the male butterflies which have orange tips – the female butterflies have black tips. Orange tip butterflies favour flowers of the cabbage family and this individual alighted and then departed several non-cabbage flowers before settling and drinking deep from these dame’s violets growing along The Drift SSSI.
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I think it’s only fair to include a raggedy painted lady butterfly in this collection, considering the journey these butterflies make to get here. This was taken feeding on hogweed along the Grantham Canal – many miles inland from the sea across which this butterfly had flown to get here. This species does not breed in the UK which means that every individual you see will have migrated from the continent.
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I rather liked the angularity of this photograph of a marbled white in a slightly unusual pose. I do not know of a site local to me where these butterflies are found, but they occur in good numbers in many grassland sites in Warwickshire where I have spent some time this summer. These butterflies seem to favour thistles – newly emerged individuals will alight temporarily on all sorts of purple flowers – from ragged robin to orchids – until they get their eye in for the thistle flowers they are seeking.
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2016 wasn’t a good year for the small tortoiseshell with low numbers recorded through much of the summer. I saw a few more in the later months, such as this one feeding with several others on a patch of thistles in a pasture field. Nettle and thistle often come to dominate patches of higher nutrient ground within pasture fields. The imago – adult butterflies – love the thistle flowers, and their caterpillars feed on nettle, so this combination of species is ideal habitat for small tortoiseshells.
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A red admiral to finish – these are one of our few species which hibernate along with small tortoiseshell, comma, peacock, speckled wood, clouded yellow and brimstone butterflies. This individual had found the patch of naturalised Michaelmas daisy in the grassland above Grantham in October, along with a range of bees and hoverflies – and was taking advantage of the nectar source and autumnal sunshine before finding somewhere dark and stable to fold its wings and await the spring.

 

 

 

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Willow flowers (or Vegetable Goslings)

Willows (Salix genus) are one of the earliest flowering tree species in the UK and are a fantastic nectar source for early pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies. These trees are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female trees which can be distinguished by their flowers. Another more commonly known example of a dioecious tree would be the holly – only the female trees bear the red berries. One of the traditional names for willow flowers was ‘vegetable goslings’ which seems a perfect description to me!

Male willow flowers
Male willow flowers – the bright yellow pollen is on the end of the stamens and this brushes onto the pollinators when the come to drink from the nectar.

The flowers are quite unusual when compared with a simple flower such as a buttercup which follows the classic textbook diagram. Willow flowers are catkins – these are spikes of numerous tiny flowers rather than each catkin representing a single flower. Each of the yellow-tipped spikes in the male flower is one of the stamens and there are generally two or more of these to each individual flower within the catkin – the number varies with species. The same is true, although less easily illustrated, for the female flowers which have two or more stigmas per flower.

Female willow flowers
Female willow flowers – these are much less showy and do not have the yellow pollen of the male flowers. They also provide nectar to attract pollinators with the hope that the previous flower visited will be a male willow of the same species and thus the pollen will be transferred and the female flower fertilised.

The male and female flowers appear at the same time in order that the pollen from the male flowers is able to fertilise the female flowers. The flowers are quite different from one another in appearance and, side by side, it would be easy to assume that a male and a female willow tree were two different species.

Development of male willow flowers
Development of male willow flowers. On the left you can see the red outer scale to the bud which breaks and the catkin emerges from beneath. The first flowers on the catkin begin to open – the red tipped stamens can be seen. The yellow pollen then begins to be produced and finally the bumblebee comes to drink from the nectar and incidentally collect the pollen whilst doing so. This is an early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the willow species is Salix x laestadiana which is a hybrid of goat willow and downy willow.

The willow flowers are an excellent source of nectar for early pollinating species, such as queen bumblebees which have emerged from hibernation and are establishing nests, or the early Nymphalidae butterflies which hibernate through the winter.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on female willow flower
Small tortoiseshell (Aglaise urticae) butterfly on female willow flower. Note the presence of the nectar source in the centre of the catkin whilst the yellow-tipped stigma is higher. The stigma is where the pollen must reach in order to fertilise the female flower and this design encourages successful pollination which is an incidental rather than intentional act on the part of the pollinator which is only interested in a free feed!
Unidentified solitary wasp on female willow flower
Unidentified solitary wasp on female willow flower – any ID tips would be most welcome! This demonstrates the effectiveness of the design of the female flower – see how the wasp must bend low into the flower to reach the nectar source, so bringing its body (which will hopefully be dusted with pollen from a male flower) into contact with the female stigma.

Brimstone butterflies – the perfect harbinger of spring

Brimstone butterflies are the perfect harbinger of spring. They are typically the first butterfly seen in most years – excepting the occasional tatty small tortoiseshell or peacocks – and they always look pristine. Perhaps the connection with spring is so strong because they confirm our own perception of the first spring day – they need the warmth and clemency of sun and still blue-skies in February or March to take to the wing.

Brimstone  (Gonepteryx rhamni)
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

I saw my first brimstone of 2014 a couple of week ago but they were out in abundance last Sunday – settling on the south-facing hedge in the garden to warm up and bask in the sunshine. A short drive across the Vale of Belvoir saw almost every hedge graced with at least one which bobbed and bounced around the periphery of the foliage.

The brimstone is one of five or six species of butterfly which hibernate in the UK. You may see much tattier and battered small tortoiseshell, comma and peacock butterflies at this time of year along with the occasional clouded yellow and, increasingly, the red admiral. All of these, excepting the brimstone and the clouded yellow, are in the Nymphalidae family – a group which includes many other familiar UK butterflies including the fritillaries and the browns. The brimstone is in the Pieridae family which also includes the whites.

Hibernating peacock butterflies which find dark places such as sheds, roof spaces, tunnels and tree cavities to close up their wings and wait for spring to return.
Hibernating peacock butterflies which find dark places such as sheds, roof spaces, tunnels and tree cavities to close up their wings and wait for spring to return.

Brimstone butterflies are a single brood species – the adult butterflies emerge in August and are on the wing, feeding and building up fat reserves, until they go into hibernation at the end of autumn. The butterflies, also called imago, re-emerge early in the spring to mate and begin their life cycle once more.

The comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies, in the Nymphalidae family, tend to have two broods in a year – that is the first batch of imago will mate and lay eggs which hatch and give rise to a second batch of imago in the same year. The red admiral has a single brood but the prevalence of imago is affected by migrating butterflies from the continent. The peacock has rather a similar life cycle to the brimstone.

It is always noticeable that the brimstone butterflies look pristine in spring, whereas the commas and small tortoiseshells often look much more battered and tatty. I was hoping this might be explained simply by the Nymphalidae butterflies being older – that is they had been on the wing longer in the previous season before hibernation, but the phenology doesn’t seem to bear this out for all. It could explain the particularly tatty comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies, if some of these are surviving stragglers from the first brood of the previous year.

Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

 There is still a difference in family between the brimstone and all of the other hibernating butterflies and I wonder whether the brimstone is simply a more structurally sound butterfly, with stronger wings which are less likely to deteriorate than the other species. The species is the longest living of the UK species, at a year, so the imago would need to be hard-wearing! I would be fascinated to know an answer to this if anybody can advise.

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

The brimstone butterflies feed on a range of nectar sources – as they are so early to emerge they rely initially upon long-flowering species such as dandelion, or early flowering species such as bluebell, cowslip and primrose. The key food plant in the autumn is thistles with a range of other species also used.

The larval food plant is surprisingly specific and not abundantly common – they require buckthorn or alder buckthorn. The species name for the butterfly eludes to this link – rhamni which refers to the latin for buckthorn – Rhamnus sp. This is a shrub which can be found in hedgerows and woodlands but is not nearly as common as other similar species such as hawthorn or blackthorn. I do not know of any buckthorn in the area but the presence of the brimstone butterflies clearly proves its existence! The comparative scarcity of buckthorn has been directly addressed by Butterfly Conservation in the past with planting programmes to increase their presence within landscapes and this has had a positive effect on the brimstone populations.

The female is much paler than the male – I saw one in the distance on Sunday which I at first through to be a large white until I crept closer and saw the distinctive veined, contoured folded wing which looks so much like a leaf.

Brimstone  (Gonepteryx rhamni) pretending to be a leaf

Butterflies and wildflowers at Robert’s Field

Last weekend we managed a flying visit to Robert’s Field, a small nature reserve managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust just off the A1 about 20 miles to the south of Grantham on a minor road between Holywell to Pickworth.

This site is a limestone grassland which has been restored with a lot of effort and dedication by the Trust following the damage caused to this ancient meadow through conifer planting in the 1960’s. The work is ongoing but the result already is a wonderfully diverse limestone grassland with a wide range of wildflower species and simply teeming with butterflies.

The site is accessed along a minor road and the meadow is approximately flanked by woodland on either side – it would be fascinating to go along one evening and see what bats could be recorded as the juxtaposition of woodland and such invertebrate rich, species rich grassland is likely to be perfect for a range of species including the noctule, pipistrelles and myotis species. Hopefully there will be a report on this to follow!

Small skipper on scabious
Small skipper on scabious

The view across the reserve was dominated by colour, from the lesser and greater knapweed, the scabious, the creeping thistle and the ladies bedstraw set against the soft brown of dried grass heads and the already-rattling brown seed-cases of yellow rattle. More delicate limestone species were to be found lower in the sward; the incredibly delicate eyebright and gently nodding harebell, creeping restharrow and common centaury.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

The star species would have to be the pyramidal orchids which scattered themselves humbly throughout the grassland with the rest of the wildflowers; my particular favourite was an all-white specimen close to the exit.

White variant of the pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis )
White variant of the pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis )

Another interesting species was the knapweed broomrape; this looks to the unaccustomed eye rather like the dead flowering stem of another plant, perhaps even an orchid. In fact, this is the plant very much alive. Most plants are green from the chlorophyll which is the pigment critical to the capture of carbon through sunlight, effectively providing the plant with its food. Broomrapes are one of a number of parasitic species – the yellow rattle being another example – which tap into the roots of other plants and steal the nutrients from them. They are this brown colour because they simply do not need to make chlorophyll, they obtain their food through theft rather than thrift! There are a number of broomrape species in the UK and they do vary on which species they parasitise. This is the knapweed broomrape and its host plant was present in abundance on this site.

Parasitic Knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior)
Parasitic Knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior)

The main reason for our quick stop-off however was to look for the butterflies. It was cooling and slightly breezy by the time we arrived with the result that many of the butterflies were resting low to the ground; walking along the track scattered them to the air in 2’s and 3’s with every footfall. This is, without a doubt, one of the most butterfly-filled fields I have ever walked through!

Six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae)
Six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae)

Meadow browns, gatekeepers and ringlets were present in profusion, along with countless small skippers which flitted from flower to flower. It seemed that every other grass stem had attached the cocoon of a six-spot burnet moth, often with the remains of the pupae still visible, with the result that every other flower seemed graced with one of these beautiful day flying moths. But the species we had really come to see kept flying away across the field, sighted only as a large light-brown butterfly which put 30 metres between us with ease on its powerful wings. Eventually, on the loop back towards the car, we finally found one stationary on a purple flower of knapweed. The dark green fritillary. This is one of the nine UK fritillary species (if you count the Duke of Burgundy) and is one of the more common although it was considered to be extinct in Lincolnshire until recently. There is some debate over whether the dark green fritillaries in Robert’s Field were introduced or whether they have made their own way to the site, but their presence amongst the more common species goes some way towards restoring the number of butterflies which were once present on this site; 25 were recorded in 1950 although another 5/6 were thought to occur. This list included chequered, dingy and grizzled skippers, brown argus, Duke of Burgundy, green hairstreak, pearl-bordered and silver-washed fritillaries and marbled white. The green hairstreak still has an inland stronghold on this site and, although its flight period is over for this year, I am hoping to go in search of them at the end of May next year!

Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja)
Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja)

The dark green fritillary is, like all of the family, a dappled chequerboard of black and orange with no dark green to be seen when the butterfly rests with wings open upon a flower. The dark green which gives this butterfly its name comes from the underside of the wings where a dark green tinge, almost like a dusting, colours the lower portions of the wings closest to the body. This species can often be found feeding on thistles and knapweed whilst the larval food plants are violets such as dog-violet.

Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja)
Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja)

Their key flight period is the first 3 weeks of July but they can be seen on the (increasingly tattered) wing into early August so there is still time to see them this year!

To read more about Robert’s Field, visit the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust web page here; you can also find information on where to find the site. Access is through a wooden gate towards the northern end of the field, next to a pull-in which can fit a couple of cars. Be careful not to park on the grassland verges which are also fantastically diverse wildflower sites in their own right and worth an inspection if time allows.

Purple Emperors in Fermyn Woods

The purple emperor (Apatura iris) is not the rarest butterfly in the UK – that rather dubious accolade would go to the high brown fritillary although there are far too many other species, such as the black hairstreak, in close contention.

But the purple emperor is one of the largest and certainly one of the most impressive. It is a woodland butterfly, favouring deciduous woodlands with a dominance of oak or beech although a good supply of willow, the larval foodplant, is another requirement. Perhaps it is this habitat, the high treetops in mature woodland glades, which makes the species all the more regal as it descends and deigns to be appreciated before ascending once more.

They are found in mature woodlands through southern England with occasional colonies elsewhere in the country and, luckily, one of these is only a 40 minute drive from Grantham.

We took a drive down to Fermyn Woods on Saturday, arriving around 10am, and were lucky enough to spot a male purple emperor settled upon a damp digging to the side of the trackway within 100m of the car. The males are seen most frequently as they come to ground to take moisture, nutrients and salts from damp ground and animal droppings – a behaviour which spoils the regal image just a little.

The remainder of the time, the adults spend high in the canopies, feeding upon the aphid honeydew and this is generally where the females will stay – they could be seen occasionally breaking the canopy cover before returning and remaining on high.

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The purple emperor is very darkly coloured, almost black, with patterning of white and orange on the top of the wings. The underside are a magnificent rich marbled motif of brown and white, almost as spectacular as the open wings. But when the light catches the wings of the males, the reason for their name becomes apparent as a sheen of purple washes across the wings, marking this out as one of the most spectacular butterflies you are likely to encounter.

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As we walked amongst other enthusiasts watching the paths and the canopies, we saw another two in flight, along with many other butterflies including white admirals, ringlets, countless skippers and speckled woods.

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The best time to see the purple emperors is around now – the peak date for sightings is given as the 13th July – and they are generally to be found on the ground during the morning when the sun begins to heat through. The ride which runs from east to west through the middle of the woods was the place to be although the woods have a network of paths which are worth exploring for their range of wildflowers including meadowsweet, perforate St John’s wort, hedge woundwort and red campion.