( A Handguide to the Butterflies and Moths of Britain and Europe by Wilkinson and Tweedie, now out of print)
While I suppose of all the wild world, birds are dearest to my heart, there's something about butterflies.
Their naming, for one thing. No other creatures seem to have been named with such whimsical abandon, with so little regard for informative exactitude, with such flights of subjective imagination. I spend quite as long browsing in the butterfly book as any other, which for me, without sacrificing anything of scientific integrity, succeeds in being a great source of poetry and wonder.
There are the gatekeepers, whose brief emergence coincides each year with the marjoram flowers,
and brimstones, which were perhaps the ones originally called butterflies, their pale yellow colour resembling butter. The ones I was able to photograph, however, were all females, who are a delicate greenish white. Today though, I notice there are many of the primrose coloured males around. (Notice the tiny green caterpillar on the flower petal to the right of the picture, I didn't when I took it.)
They are, in some way, a little like animated flowers, they blossom then fade and disappear, coming in waves, their size and intensity of colour and markings often varying with the moment of their flowering. We had a great and unprecedented wave, quite early in the spring, of these painted ladies.
They were large, but seemed quite faded and fragile, somewhat as their name suggests. Then we saw fewer of them, until there was another burgeoning of them in the last few weeks, and these seemed smaller but sturdier and more intensely marked and coloured. In these explosion years they appear in numbers in Britain too, though other years they are scarce. It is, it seems, among the most widespread of all butterfly species, there is even a sub-species in Australia. In French she is called la cosmopolite.
Some, of course, are named in a more workaday or obvious way, like this small copper (below), a tiny insect, perhaps half the size of the small white, which took some stalking to capture,
and the ever-glorious peacock, which needs neither introducing nor explaining. One butterfly website I visited said that even many well-travelled lepidopterists consider it to be one of the most beautiful in the world.
While some, like the scatty large and small 'cabbage' whites in the previous post, are quick and elusive, difficult to photograph, and when they do land they often keep their wings frustratingly closed, others, like the small tortoiseshell below, are quite easy to capture, and bask, for quite long periods, with their pretty wings openly displayed.
When I was a child, I had a friend, my second best. She was a rather sad girl who told terrible fibs that drove me mad, but she had a passion for butterflies. We would run round to a piece of rough ground near to my house and her father's motor bike garage, where she was often left to kick her heels after school, and try to catch the butterflies on the 'butterfly bush', a mauve buddleia. This shrub didn't seem so frequent then as it does now. We caught them in fishing nets, the kind on a wire loop poked into a bamboo cane, but we always let them go. It seemed to us that the more special and colourful the butterfly, the cleverer it was; the cabbage whites were easily caught, and once trapped in the net, flew upwards and were unable to escape. The cleverest were the peacocks and red admirals, and to a lesser extent the tortoiseshells, which seemed more aware of the perils of the nets, and, if you caught one, you had to quickly pinch the opening of the net closed, or they would fly downward and out. But I have never read or heard of anything to confirm our childhood observations on the relative intelligence of different species of lepidoptera...
We have plenty of buddleia in the garden, but it is not the most attractive plant to the butterflies. That distinction falls to the purple perennial wallflower, on which most of these butterflies were photographed. It is an unremarkable plant, but it goes on and on through spring summer and autumn, and they clearly love it, and eschew the buddleia in its favour.
Others, like this comma, while feeding on the flowers,
seem to like to spend time on the leaves of the laurel hedge. The name comes from the tiny, comma-shaped raised marking you can see on the underside of the wing to the left of the picture. An oddly obscure feature to give the creature its name...
I'm not quite sure why they like the laurel, perhaps because its shininess reflects heat back up to them. Early in the year, numbers of honey bees come to harvest propolis, the plant wax on the leaves, to make into their combs, but I can't think the butterflies have any use for this.