First butterflies of the year

by Richard Jones

A green-veined white, Pieris napi, was the first to appear, fluttering down to examine the mock orange flowers.

Female orange-tip butterflyAt last, a butterfly in my garden. Now I know from comments on previous blogs that others have already seen lots this year. There's a tendency to brag about them, I think. But my garden was empty of butterflies until Saturday. Then, like buses, three came along at once.

A green-veined white, Pieris napi, was the first to appear, fluttering down to examine the mock orange flowers. This is probably the most widespread of the ‘cabbage’ whites, since it occurs commonly throughout the British Isles. Its preference for wild flowers (ladies’ smock, garlic mustard and hedge mustard) rather than cultivated brassicas means that it's less persecuted, but is also more easily overlooked.

A few minutes later a holly blue, Celastrina argiolus, appeared and sunned it self on the glossy ivy leaves that cover our south-facing fence. This spring generation develops from caterpillars that fed on ivy, but probably not this clump, since they eat the developing flower buds and we don’t have any here yet. They're probably breeding in the jungle-like ivy growth that threatens to engulf our shed further up the garden.

Speckled wood butterflyA couple of hours later, the first speckled wood, Pararge aegeria, appears, looking velvety fresh. The likelihood is that it has just emerged from an overwintering chrysalis. This butterfly is unique among our British species in that it hibernates in both caterpillar and chrysalis stage. Those that spent winter as a caterpillar will have a bit of catching up to do and should start emerging in May.

On Sunday, there are more butterflies up at the allotment. A peacock, Inachis io, greets us at the car park, but dashes off at full tilt after brief introductions.

Then, perhaps my favourite of all British butterflies, an orange-tip, Anthocharis cardamines. The orange-tipped males always lift my heart. They remind me of springtime in the Sussex Weald when I used to go roaming through the woods and copses as a boy. The female (pictured, above) lacks the gaudy insignia of its English common name, but is nevertheless a beautiful butterfly, delicately camouflaged with mottled green under her hind wings. Lovely.

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Gardeners' World Web User 24/04/2009 at 12:28

Wow this is amazing I love butterflies. Spring is my favourite time of the year because that is when there are most of them. Once my step-cousin once removed ate one by accident, he said it tasted weird.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/04/2009 at 17:28

I was watching a peacock butterfly a few days ago, and wondered how the poor thing managed to survive. Its wings were so ragged, with chunks missing, and the colours dull and dusty. What is their lifespan? Am I right in thinking they overwinter in sheds & suchlike? If so, how often can they do so?

Gardeners' World Web User 25/04/2009 at 16:30

Thank you for the name and picture of the speckled wood butterfly - we've had one come for several years and I couldn't find the picture in our book. We've also had a holly blue this week, and an orange tip. Peacocks came a couple of weeks ago, and our second butterfly of the year was a brimstone. We do seem to have more butterflys this year - is it because I have increased the early flowering plants in the garden, or is it a better year for them? How do they survive cold winters?

Gardeners' World Web User 26/04/2009 at 20:34

Hm! You are all more fortunate than me as all I've seen are a couple of cabbage whites. I do love watching the butterflies when I have the chance - they are sooooo beautiful. I keep my binoculars handy so that I can get a good view. Hope I get some more colourful ones appearing soon.

Gardeners' World Web User 27/04/2009 at 13:32

the top picture is of a male Orange Tip.

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