Holly blue butterflies

Posted: Wednesday 25 April 2012
by Richard Jones

There is a touching courtship going on around the ivy hedge; the holly blues are playing kiss chase in the sunshine.

Holly blue butterfly on an ivy leaf

There is a touching courtship going on around the ivy hedge; the holly blues are playing kiss chase in the sunshine. Unlike many butterflies, the holly blue, Celastrina argiolus, is almost tame and will sit placidly on a leaf and allow much closer examination than some of its flighty relatives.
Sometimes, this is because they are feeding. Holly blues tend to sip honeydew spilled on the leaves, rather than to visit flowers after nectar. Sometimes this is because they are basking in the sunshine. And sometimes, it is because they are embroiled in an elaborate courtship ritual. This is exactly what was happening on Sunday.
Singleton blues have been flitting about for a fortnight, but now, several times during the day, I caught pairs of them making their mad climbing spiral dances together. Within seconds they would land on a sun-lit leaf and the pushing and shoving would begin.
Sometimes the female, with soot-blackened upperside wing-tips waddles across the leaf, fluttering her wings rapidly, then turns about and stops. The male now sidles over and nudges her with his body. There might be some perfunctory wing opening and closing, which in itself is odd behaviour for this butterfly; normally when it stops on a leaf, either feeding or resting, it sits with its wings firmly held together up over its body, displaying only the chalky blue underside.
Both abdomens are now waving frantically. Sometimes the female seems less than willing and she sticks her tail up in the air out of reach of the grasping male. Sometimes the coupling is successful.
All this is going on across the ivy-encrusted fence. It’s interesting that this mating ritual is going on here, because although the holly blue lays its eggs on ivy, it only does so in July and August or perhaps into September. The mating butterflies I’m watching today will shortly depart to lay their eggs on holly (or sometimes pyracantha).
The holly blue is unique in Britain in that its two generations a year use completely different foodplants. The spring adults lay their eggs on the unopened buds of holly, but when these caterpillars finally give rise to adults emerging in July and August, they seek out ivy, dogwood, spindle or snowberry for egg-laying.
My amorous blues have no doubt spent the winter as chrysalises snuggled deep in the ivy thatch. They are making one last use of the broad shiny leaves before they go off looking for their own egg-laying sites in some other garden.

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Talkback: Holly blue butterflies
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happymarion 25/04/2012 at 16:50

Oh, Richard, and it is too wet to get out in my garden today to see it all. Last year I had hordes of them in April but then we had that lovely weather, in fact a five week drought. I have seen orange tips and speckled woods in the last few weeks but no blues as yet. My garden has all the shrubs you mention, in fact loads of holly and dogwood and a solitary spindle brought by the birds, four pyracanthas and a large snowberry bush, so it is holly blue heaven.

Jean Webster 26/04/2012 at 19:50

Where was this? And when? I saw some butterflies last week in my garden in Cornwall but I was so surprised that I didn't even think to identify them. Must get my camera at the ready. Had a few bees too & where are all the wood lice cop0ming from in my conservatory? I always help them to go outside though although some of them are dead.

Wendy Cartwright 27/04/2012 at 09:37

That is fascinating.I love the description of the courtship. Did you watch with binoculars? My partner and I are holing an event in London called 'The Big Buzz and Flutter in Archbishop's Park' for the Chelsea Fringe. We have a few leaflets from Butterfly conservation, but no one is coming to do a workshop. Our aim is to make people aware of the decline of the butterflies, and what we can do about it - we need an expert like you. Might you be interested? The Chelsea Fringe runs from May 19th - June 10th. We are just there for weekends. I long to know more about butterflies. Clive Farrel is kindly donating seed for our seed bombs we are making. ( The bombs will have seed to attract bees and butterflies) Wendy Cartwright email:

happymarion 29/04/2012 at 20:11

I live in Bristol, Jean, and have seen quite a few butterflies. I photographed an orange tip at the Botanic Garden last Thursday which snoozed for hours on a dicentra flower and only flew off when the first raindrop fell. They hate getting their wings wet.I think I put the pic on the Dicentra thread in Forum,