Guest post by Jonathan Bradley
Even though our beautiful butterflies are endangered by damage to our natural environment you can still enjoy their company, perhaps more than you think. They can give us lots of pleasure, and in my own case butterflies have caused me to write and publish a collection of poems inspired by them. It is called Papiliones, and the title means “butterflies” in Latin. You don’t need to be a scientist or environmental activist to feel passionate about butterflies. I am not an expert about the natural sciences, but I just love seeing them and writing about them.
Butterflies through the seasons
So, as the British winter sets in and the days are shortening, where are butterflies in our lives? The chances are that even if you live in a town or city there is butterfly life somewhere nearby. You may not see their bright wings flying on a chill North wind, but because butterflies go through several stages in their life cycle they can be close by even when you can’t see them. They start off as fertilised eggs, laid by the female adult on a plant that will eventually feed the caterpillar that emerges from the egg. The eggs of some butterfly species remain quietly dormant right through the winter until conditions are right for the caterpillar to come out of its safe home and start munching.
One of these is the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly, and if you are lucky enough to have elm trees anywhere near you there might be White-letter Hairstreak eggs on it, waiting for the spring. They occur even in cities on elms such as wych-elms that survived the dreadful scourge of Dutch elm disease.
Hidden butterfly larvae
Many butterflies overwinter as larvae (caterpillars) or as pupae (chrysalises). An example of a butterfly that spends the colder months as a larva is the Meadow Brown butterfly. If you have seen lots of brownish-orange butterflies fluttering lazily over meadows or waste ground in mid-summer they were probably Meadow Browns. They are very widespread and quite common, so the chances are that you have seen one even if you did not notice it. They are not brightly coloured and so easy to miss. Their green larvae hide on long grass stems, and can be found if you search hard enough in places where the adults have flown previously.
The Orange-tip in winter
Other butterflies spend the winter as pupae. The Orange-tip does this. This is the bright cheerful butterfly that can often be seen patrolling roadsides or river banks in the spring. The pupae stay comfortably attached to a plant stem until the weather is right for the caterpillar to come out. Research has shown that they sometimes wait a whole year before emerging. Here is the poem about the Orange-tip that is included in my new book:
When spring is well unwound
and in full swing,
when blue tits leave the fat balls
to fill their beaks instead
with twigs and feathers for their nests,
a flame-edged roamer
busies through the archway
from the green beyond,
a flying smile, a live rebuke to darkness.
The Orange-tip monitors
the primrose bank,
his white and burnished copper
faster than the yellow-pale petals
quivering in the breeze,
and all their colours singing youth.
His green-dappled mate
seeks out cuckooflower
by the brook.
Both are quickly gone
from corner of the eye,
but life is good on a morning
tinged with orange.
Butterflies that wake in winter
Some of the bigger butterflies fly from time to time as adults even in winter. Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, and Red Admirals, for instance, spend the winter in their adult form and hibernate for a lot of the time, and on mild sunny days they may wake up and fly about. Usually this happens outside, but on several occasions I have found live butterflies inside my house in winter. They probably flew in through an open door or window when they were looking for somewhere to hibernate and found a good spot. If this happens in your home you don’t need to put the butterfly outside. Just wait until a warm early spring day, open the doors and windows and the butterfly will fly out to find a mate.
Peacock on a Christmas tree
It is a great pleasure to see a butterfly on the wing in winter. The most memorable instance of this in my life was when we were sitting round our dining table for Christmas lunch and a Peacock butterfly suddenly appeared as if from nowhere and flew around our heads, as if to say “Remember the summer? Happy Christmas to you all!” As we all gaped with astonishment it then flew round the Christmas tree and eventually settled on the star at the top. I wrote a poem about it, and that too is in my book if you would like to read it.
Jonathan Bradley is the author of Papiliones a collection of poems inspired by butterflies, as well as the stories behind their often unusual and exotic names, and colour photographs. Profits go to UK charity Butterfly Conservation. Our thanks to Jonathan Bradley for permission to use the images from his book.