Garden butterflies

by Richard Jones

That warm Saturday (April 26th) brought out the first butterflies of the year: holly blue, small tortoiseshell and speckled wood.

Small tortoiseshell butterflyThat warm Saturday (April 26th) brought out the first butterflies of the year: holly blue, small tortoiseshell and speckled wood. They're all common garden species, but I always get a thrill when I see any of them.

The female holly blue was fluttering round the ivy leaves. It had probably just emerged from a chrysalis hidden somewhere inside the dense foliage, because this is the wrong foodplant for this time of year. This butterfly is unique in Britain in having two generations a year on two completely different foodplants. Butterflies in the spring emergence lay their eggs on holly and their caterpillars feed on the developing buds. When these insects reach adulthood in late-summer they lay their eggs on ivy flower buds. At least that is the received wisdom because according to many observers in cities (where ivy, holly and the butterflies have always been common), they are now switching their egg-laying preferences to include pyracantha and snowberry.

The small tortoiseshell is one of only four UK butterflies to overwinter as an adult - peacock, comma and brimstone are the others, although the red admiral might start qualifying if it continues to survive our warmer winters. Any of these insects ought to have a head start as soon as the weather warms up, so to see the first one flying so late in April just bears out the fact that it really has been very cool so far this year.

Speckled wood butterflyThe speckled wood flew straight past the back door, up over the fence and away. Despite its name it is definitely a garden butterfly in this part of south-east London. But then, we are lucky to have lots of fairly large gardens down this way, and Dulwich is still the most wooded part of the metropolis. The caterpillars feed on grasses, particularly cock's-foot, Yorkshire fog and false brome, so some of the unkempt back gardens in the neighbourhood probably have breeding colonies.

Speckled woods are often difficult to sex at a distance, and small tortoiseshells are impossible, but there is a neat trick to tell males from females - almost without fail. When you see one resting in a patch of sunlight, on a leaf, or on the ground, lob a small pebble, about a metre over the top of it. If it's a male, it will guard its territory jealously and fly up to investigate the missile. If it's a female it will ignore the stone and continue sunning itself. So confrontational are the males that they will also flap up to investigate other butterflies, bumblebees, birds and even passing aeroplanes.

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Gardeners' World Web User 01/05/2008 at 21:27

I love butterflies - and on my birthday 16th April the most beautiful peacock butterfly visited my garden - as if by invitation!

Gardeners' World Web User 04/05/2008 at 10:55

love butterflies nice article

Gardeners' World Web User 06/05/2008 at 08:47

With the lovely weather just now I found quite a few butterflies visiting out garden - but I will make sure that I get more plants to encourage them even more!

Gardeners' World Web User 26/05/2008 at 11:11

I have left a large area in my garden border full of large stinging nettles to try to encourage butterflies and other wildlife. However they are getting really large and are pushing other plants out. Can I cut them back now without depriving the butterflies, or should I leave them for a bit longer? I will have to thin them out eventually.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:31

I am lucky enough to be employed as a Nature Conservation Officer for the local authority here in Spalding, Lincolnshire. I run a small nature reserve on the edge of town (The Vernatt's LNR) I was sitting sharing a well earned cuppa with one of my volunteers over two weeks ago (early/Mid April)and we were contemplating clearing a particularly thick area of bramble beside the steps on which we were sitting. The sun was quite strong and we were both surprised and amazed to see two Comma butterlies crawl from deep in the thicket, spread their wings and dry themselves out before flying off an hour later. The thicket is still there :-)

Since then the occasional sunny spells we get here on the Fens have been thick with Commas, Peacocks, Brimstones and various whites. Not seen any of the blues yet, but still time. Thanks for the blog, useful source of information and entertainment.