On Red Admirals and Migration

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the fantastic Red Admiral that I am hoping will be around and about as soon as the weather warms up.  However, the reason that I was prompted to write about the butterfly was due to an interesting article that I read in the wonderfully informative British Wildlife magazine.

Whilst many nature lovers are aware of the satellite tagging that is now being done on all sorts of species, particularly the cuckoos and ospreys that have been tracked to Africa and back, you may not be aware that there are other ways to track the movement of species (particularly small, delicate ones such as butterflies).

Scientists have recently been investigating the levels of different isotopes of hydrogen found in the wings of Red Admirals across Europe.  These are taken into the body of the butterfly when, as a caterpillar it does what caterpillars do and eats.  Across Europe the normal foodstuff of a caterpillar will have different levels of these hydrogen isotopes.  Comparison of these levels with non-migratory species of butterfly then allows scientists to tell where the butterfly spent its time as a caterpillar.

The results of the work were very interesting.   Italian butterflies examined in autumn showed different isotope levels to non-migratory species.   This indicated that the butterflies had developed in northern Europe and migrated south.  Italian butterflies examined in the Spring had levels similar to those of local butterflies indicating that they were locally bred as a result of a winter breeding cycle and were not overwintering adults from further afield.  In addition there were also some individuals that seemed to have migrated from further south in the Spring.

In Northern Europe the examination of butterflies in the Summer appears to suggest that they had migrated from central Europe, whilst those examined in the autumn appeared in the main to be more local, but with some migration still occurring from the south.

So, in conclusion it would appear that butterflies move north to breed in the Summer and then move south in the autumn to breed into the winter months.  Will this change with the changing climate  and, as previously noted, an increased propensity for adult Red Admirals to overwinter in some northern parts of Europe?

Migrant Butterflies

When you think of migrant species, the word butterfly is not usually the first thing that pops into your head.  Whilst many of us have seen pictures of the mass migrations of Monarch butterflies in America, you may not realise that many of the butterflies that we see in our gardens each year have flown in from Europe or Africa.  (Although the recent coverage of the Painted Lady migrations on the fantastic Springwatch may have increased awareness of migratory butterflies.)

More surprising though is the fact that one of our commonest butterflies, the Red Admiral, is a migrant.  To confuse things still further though, it is also in some cases being classed as a resident.  Climate change and the warmer winters means that it is now able to survive winters as an adult in the south of the country (this includes Northamptonshire). Consequently it is often one of the first butterflies seen each year – often in January.

The Red Admiral is a striking and unmistakeable butterfly.  Its Latin name is Vanessa Atalanta, named after the beautiful and athletic goddess Atalanta, a famous huntress.  Atalanta tried to enlist with the argonauts but was turned down as Jason was worried about the presence of one woman on the ship.  She would go to such lengths to avoid marriage that suitors were challenged to a race, those who lost, the penalty not being a sufficient deterrent, being put to death.  She was eventually beaten after the love goddess Aphrodite took pity on a suitor and helped him distract Atalanta during the race.

The butterfly given her name can be seen throughout the year (although the first major migration occurs from mid-May to the end of June), in most habitats, throughout the country.  It will visit many flowers, switching from one favourite to another as the summer progresses, moving onto fruit and then ivy blossom in the autumn.  There would usually be a return migration in the autumn, but they are increasingly staying to overwinter in the south of England.

The food plant of the Red Admiral is the nettle, with the small, green egg laid on the upperside of a leaf.  When this hatches, the caterpillar uses silk to form a tent from the leaf on which it hatched, and, as it grows it pulls in more leaves to its tent and eventually makes its chrysalis in the tent.  After two and half weeks the black or yellow spiny caterpillar will emerge from its chrysalis as a stunning red, white and black butterfly.

Flutterby Butterfly – look out for these beautiful insects this spring

One of the first butterflies that you will notice as the days get a bit warmer and lighter is the Brimstone.  As its name suggests this is a yellow butterfly, which it is thought was the original butter-coloured fly from which butterfly was derived – its name later being changed to reflect its sulphurous colour.

The Brimstone is one of the few UK butterflies that overwinter as an adult and therefore it is one of the early fliers in Spring.  In fact Brimstones were spotted on 2nd January in Hampshire and Surrey, and have already been spotted in Northamptonshire in February.

Whilst many butterflies live as adults for only a few weeks Brimstones are a much longer-lived insect and, despite laying eggs only once a year, can be seen from February through to November, depending on where you are in the country.  The best time to see the butterflies are reported to be April, May and August (the latter when the year’s eggs have gone through their full cycle and the adults have emerged).  However, I think they are much more noticeable in March when there are fewer insects about and the bright yellow of their wings becomes very noticeable as it catches the spring sunshine.  They are another of the indicator species that I use to decide that spring has finally sprung.

So, how do you recognise a Brimstone butterfly and where will you see one?  The males are a bright yellow colour whereas the females are much paler but both have an orange spot on their wings; their colour makes them unmistakeable in flight.  They are a medium sized butterfly, their wings are about 2 1/4 inches and they are very strong fliers, often roaming away from their food sources in search of a mate.

At rest you will notice that their wings are a beautiful leaf or shield shape.  This helps them camouflage themselves for roosting overnight under ivy leaves or for when hibernating over winter.  I was actually surprised by how well they blend in when I watched one move underneath the leaf of a dogwood in the garden to shelter from the rain.

Brimstone caterpillars eat mainly buckthorn and alder buckthorn plants, they are bright green and apparently resemble the caterpillars of the cabbage white butterflies.  I haven’t seen any yet, but I will let you know if I find some.

They are found almost anywhere there is a bit of sunshine.  Males can be seen patrolling along hedgerows and roadside looking for love, whereas the females tend to be a little less obvious and hide in the vegetation.  They are particularly fond of purple and nectar rich plants.  In the spring you will often see them on primroses, cowslips and bluebells, whereas in the summer knapweed, teasel (which their long proboscis allows them to feed on) and thistles are popular.  The Brimstones that I have seen in my garden tend to like the buddleia and verbena- as do most of the other insects.

So, in the coming month, keep an eye out for this remarkably pretty butterfly.  If you see it, you will know spring is on its way.

If you want to know more about butterflies or help conserve them then the Butterfly Conservation website is a good place to start.

Finally the butterflies have arrived…

…well, some of them have.  With the much talked about decline in pollinator numbers I have been getting concerned about the dearth of butterflies recently.  I had hoped that with the warm sunshine we had in June that there would be a bumper year this year – sadly I was sooo wrong.

However, it is now buddleia flowering time and my hopes are starting to rise again.  Earlier in the week there were a few white butterflies about, and I got excited when I saw my first Peacock of the summer.  Today, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and I should have been doing some coursework, but, the sun was shining etc.  I managed to count up to 10 peacock butterflies at the same time – there may have been more, but I can only see part of the shrub.  I also saw four whites over the back garden, a small tortoiseshell in the front and back (although it could be the same one), a gatekeeper and, for the first time in the garden this year, I a saw a comma butterfly – see the picture on the left – so called because of the white, comma-shaped mark on the underside of its wing.  As yet, no Red Admirals or Painted Ladies, but we are only just starting the second week of August and the admirals tend to hang about until October / November.

Peacock butterfly picture below is just because it is such a gorgeous creature that I had to include it!

Insects, insects, and some flowers

No nature notes for two weeks, it is not due to a lack of things to see, just a time issue.  Where to start – probably insects.  The weather has been pretty variable, some sun, rain, thunder, lightning, it was just hail and snow that were missing.  This seems to have had a different effect on insects.  I don’t know what is happening where you are, but I don’t think I have seen a single butterfly in the last two weeks.  I am not sure if it is just a natural hiatus, some are in caterpillar form, others are waiting for the correct plants, but it does seem odd.

What are about in abundance are damselflies.  A walk round a lake on a sunny day reveals them in numbers.  I managed to take some of my best pictures ever. This was taken along the path, and is my first bit of insect porn.  I love the colours of the damselflies against the green of the leaf.  I think that these are common blue damselflies, but they are apparently very similar to the azure and variable blue damselflies and I am just not good enough yet.  There were also lots of large red damselflies about.  Last week I also saw a lot of Blue Tailed damselflies which flew up whenever I brushed past some grass by the lake.

The sage is flowering now, and is bringing a lot of honey and bumble bees to the garden whilst the birds foot trefoil is attracting them to the back which is good because that is where my broad beans (the first time I have tried growing them) are flowering.

Wild flowers are still in abundance, although lots have gone to seed.  The grasses, for those not attacked by their pollen, are looking pretty in both the sun and the rain an around the lake there are a lot of flag iris about, looking bright amongst the green.

The garden is covered in birds every morning.  The finches, green, gold and bullfinches turn up every day, making a lot of noise and getting through a lot of sunflower hearts.  We also had the first baby great tits last weekend.  In recent years they have always appeared over the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May.  This year they are a week late.  They usually turn up at the same time as the baby blue tits, both can be distinguished from their parents by the more squeaky noise they make and the fact that they look as though they have faded in the wash.  However, I haven’t seen any blue tits yet, even though the ones on Springwatch have fledged.

Have you seen one of these yet?

Painted Lady Butterfly
Painted Lady Butterfly

Earlier this year there was an invasion of Painted Lady (vanessa cardui) butterflies in the UK which had migrated up from the Mediterranean.  The eggs laid by these migrants have hatched, the caterpillars have pupated and now, we are told to expect billions of these butterflies in the coming month prior to them migrating back to sunnier and warmer climes to start the life cycle over again.  For more information about these visitors please visit the Butterfly Conservation website and record your sightings.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that for something the size of a butterfly, which looks incredibly delicate, to fly down to the south of Spain is pretty incredible.  I don’t want to do that and I could get on a ‘plane.  When you add in the fact that these often appear in quite large numbers, are attracted to gardens, particularly those with buddleia or verbena bonariensis (i.e. mine) then I think they are pretty special.  They are also fantastic to look at and photograph, staying pretty still for quite a while (unlike those pesky large whites which rarely settle and lay their caterpillar-bearing eggs all over my brassicas).

Let’s just hope the sun comes out again.

Gardening for Wildlife (and photography)

We have a small front and back garden which have completely different conditions and uses. Whilst the back is an extension to the house, the front is in full public view.  With this in mind the back was designed by James to be tranquil and shady, with quite a few trees, and, although there are some flowers, this is not the focus.  The back also has a pond, and is designed with both wildlife and us in mind.  The front is another story!

The front garden is south facing and is blasted by the sun for much of the day.  It is also not at all sheltered and can have the wind whipping across it.  It has been designated as a place for flowers, and, hopefully insects.  I am therefore packing in as many flowers, colours and as much  movement in as possible.  The hope is that I will be able to take photos of both the flowers and the insects that they attract, but also have something vivid that will eventually work through all the seasons.

I started the garden a year ago, and have a few plants that have really worked well.  One of these is verbena bonariensis.  I have tried growing this for a few years from seed, but never got any to germinate.  I was therefore over the moon when my mother-in-law gave me three small plants that had seeded in her garden.  Last year they attracted the white butterflies, as well as the occasional tortoiseshell.  This year?  Well, it is a good year for Painted Ladies, and the good news is that they have found my garden.  Saturday was the first sunny day in a while and we had three Painted Ladies in the garden, all on the Verbena.

As I was hoping it would attract insects I planted it next to the path, this makes photography easier.  I took a few photos yesterday, but the wind made it a little difficult at times, but the Summer is hopefully young and I will get some good shots at some point.  Here is one of my better shots – have you seen one of these this year?

Painted Lady on Verbena
Painted Lady on Verbena

More reasons to be cheerful.

I saw my first butterfly of the year yesterday.  It was a Brimstone, often one of the first to be out flying, in fact they were recorded a couple of months ago in Oxfordshire.  He gladdened my heart (he was definitely a he, too bright a yellow to be female).  I had popped into the back garden to enjoy the sunshine, and it appears he had the same thought.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a photograph.

On my way home today, I saw my first blossom trees flowering.  I am not sure what they are, but they are cherry related.  There was a bee on this flower shortly before I took this picture, but, as is often the case, he flew away before I could press the button.

Spring Blossom

Also of note are the daffodils flowering on various roundabouts, roadsides and gardens, as well as the early flowering tulips that open up to greet the sun in our front garden.  OK, they are a  bit gaudy, but I think you can get away with it at tis time of the year.

Early Tulip

Front Garden – Insects and Flowers

I had wanted to share my successes in the sphere of growing produce, but, at the moment it feels as though the fates have conspired against me and sent plagues of slugs and clouds to stop me in my tracks. Instead I thought I would highlight something that has worked better than I thought.
For some time we have been wondering what to do with the front garden. So, after a year or two of indecision (a relatively short amount of time for us) we decided to remove the lawn completely (this part of the decision was made relatively easily as other than looking green lawns are relatively dull, it was deciding what to put in its place that took the time).
The aim of our back garden is to produce somewhere tranquil and shady with variations on a theme of white and green. It is somewhere for us and for the birds (assuming we can keep the aforementioned killing machines away). The front is a complete contrast to the back. It is south facing, remains relatively warm in the winter, although the wind whips visciously across it, and we don’t feel the need for tranquility. I wanted something that would brighten the day whenever I saw it. It was also meant to become a haven for insects whilst allowing me to grow flowers to photograph. (Following the destruction of some of my brassicas I am beginning to change my mind about the first objective).

Where the back garden has been controlled and planned, the front has become a riot of colour and, as a consequence, a haven for insects. The planting started at the end of June (although we already had some thyme, sage and oregano installed from an earlier attempt to work out what to do with the space) and mainly consisted of some grasses that we had bought for the back but which did not now fit with the current plans (I think we are onto at least Plan K), seedlings that if I didn’t plant somewhere would probably die, and some Verbena and Osteospermum kindly donated by James’ mum. As you can see, it looked a little sad when initially planted in June.

Now, thanks in part to some pot marigolds that I was careless enough to allow to self seed last year, and the lashings of rain, the garden has been transformed. I planted some white cosmos which has reached 5′ in height, and, for the first time I have managed to get some rudbeckia to grow. I have today just done the first bit of dead heading on these, and they are full of flower, with many more to open. However, the star of the show has to be the Verbena Bonariensis. This has flowered solidly for more than a month and looks in no hurry to stop. It positively glows in low light, and, more than anything else in the front garden, has become a magnet for butterflies, bees and hoverflies. What’s more, they sit so still on this flower that even I can manage to get a good photograph (and lots of poor ones) of the butterflies.

(In case you are wondering, we are going to put some light granite gravel in the centre section to make moving about the area much easier and less muddy.) I have also tried growing produce in the front garden, but the butterflies found the brassicas and the slugs found the peppers and herbs. (Touch wood, but the fennel seems to be doing OK at the moment.)


It didn’t rain yesterday, so I took advantage and came home for my lunch.  When I got home I discovered that the butterflies had given up waiting for any sunshine to warm the air and were just pleased that there was no rain for a change – I guess they were getting pretty hungry as well.

This year has been pretty bad for the butterflies, with only the occasional sunny day.  We have had quite a few red admirals and whites when the sun has come out, but have seen no painted ladies this year and very few tortoiseshells.  

Brimstone ButterflyAnother new butterfly that I have noticed in the garden this year (in addition to the Holly Blue in the Spring) is a Brimstone (Gonepterix rhamni) one or maybe more of which have been coming to the garden intermittently for the last couple of weeks.  I normally associate these with Spring as they are one of the first butterflies that I see when the sun starts to come out in March and April (this year being a bit of an exception).  

They are easy to recognise; varying from yellowy green to a yellowy cream colour depending on whether they are male or female (males are darker coloured).  Their leaf shaped wings that they always fold back when feeding and resting have an orange spot, the veins improving their camouflage when resting beneath a leaf as nicely demonstrated in the picture that I managed to grab the other day.