Blood rain and butterflies

Posted: Friday 11 April 2014
by Kate Bradbury

All the talk of Saharan dust and ‘blood rain’ in Britain last week got me thinking about butterflies.

Peacock on buddleia

All the talk of Saharan dust and ‘blood rain’ last week got me thinking about butterflies. Last summer, for the first time, I gathered caterpillars from a patch of stinging nettles. I took them home, and watched them grow and transform into adults. When they emerged from the chrysalis, they appeared to bleed. I learned that this bright red, blood-like liquid is meconium, described as ‘a metabolic waste product from the pupal stage that is expelled through the anal opening of the adult butterfly.’ Nice.

I read more. Apparently, in July 1608, the residents of Aix-en-Provence in southern France found ‘blood’ on the walls of buildings and the local cemetery. Many believed this ‘blood rain’ to be the work of the Devil, but some suggested it was caused by butterflies. In another account from 1553, naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described in his book, The Romance of Natural History, that hedges, trees, stones and people's clothes were sprinkled with 'drops of red fluid, which was supposed to be blood, til some observant person noticed the coincident appearance of unusual swarms of butterflies.' Blood rain. 

The single droplet of meconium from each small tortoiseshell butterfly in my kitchen amounted to less than half a teaspoon. Imagine how many butterflies it would take to decorate stones, clothing and walls, and be enough for a whole village to think the Devil was at work? It might have been unusual 500 years ago, but what are the chances of such a thing happening now?

This week, Butterfly Conservation published news that, despite butterflies bouncing back last year (2012 was officially the worst year on record for butterflies), numbers were still below average. The data, gathered by Butterfly Conservation in conjunction with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), showed that some 46 out of the 56 species recorded an annual increase compared to 2012, and several rare species revived their dwindling populations. The small tortoiseshell had its best year in a decade.

But numbers are still below average, and butterflies are still declining.

I was amazed at how many butterflies I saw last summer – for the first time I saw 20-30 peacocks, small tortoiseshells and commas at a time nectaring on buddleja. I found caterpillars for the first time because there were caterpillars to find (I had been looking for a couple of years). And there are lots of butterflies around now. It seems that a large number from last year hibernated successfully and are once again making hay while the sun shines.  

But I did not see unusually large numbers last year and I'm not seeing them now. Has it reached the stage where declines are such that we are simply used to not seeing butterflies? I don’t think I know what an 'average' butterfly year looks like. But I hope that, in my lifetime, I will observe them in numbers that my mum or granny would have been used to. No doubt such an increase in numbers will surprise us as much as the ‘blood’-spattered walls of Aix in 1608. But it will just be an average year. An average year with lots of butterflies.

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Blood rain and butterflies
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

Singing Hedgehog 17/04/2014 at 13:36

As ever with these things there is no single cause nor solution: loss of hedgerows, urban concretisation, jobsworth mowing of verges, nectarless perty plants in garden centres; a number of councils seem to be responding and either mowing in sympathy with insects or leaving areas to grow wild, campaigns such as those by BC and RHS are raising awareness of better choices of plants for gardeners.
[PS I have your booklet from BC and will be planting up a butterfly/bee bed over the next year.]

smflyman 17/04/2014 at 16:46

After a mild if tempestuous Winter I saw several early flutterbys, but only the odd one of each species. It would appear that former 'abundant' numbers have in deed become things of the past. A Fritillary appeared in our garden (South Wales valley) - the first I have seen in 10 years - I cannot say if that means they are frequent elsewhere for me to see one here, but despite planting for insects I see relatively few.
Steve Morris

flowering rose 17/04/2014 at 20:41

with the loss of front gardens and now the start of loss with back gardens ,its no wonder we are losing our wildlife.

Elusive 17/04/2014 at 21:14

90% of the flowers I grow in my garden are for wildlife. I have a few pretty ones for myself but mostly I consider what is useful for wildlife before myself.

I get plenty of wildlife that visit me

Roy Hill 20/04/2014 at 00:27

"The single droplet of meconium from each small tortoiseshell butterfly in my kitchen amounted to less than half a teaspoon."

How many of the 'each'?

See more comments...