One of the many rewards of returning to work in the garden after a short break is not only to see changes in the vegetation that have occurred but also to hear about the different species of insects that have been spotted recently. Here Larissa tells us about the vibrant butterfly life during two sweltering weeks in July:
“Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”
― Hans Christian Andersen, The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales
It’s my favourite time of the year and I have welcomed the heat after a cool spring. This spell of fine weather is particularly good news for butterflies, whose populations had suffered from the previous years’ wet and cool summers. Butterflies and moths are unable to fly, find mates, feed or lay eggs to maintain population levels when the weather is poor. They are sensitive to environmental changes, and because of this, they are seen as good indicators of the likely effects on other species from a changing climate.
The first to emerge in the Garden earlier in the year at the end of April, were the orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines). Both male and female butterflies were around so hopefully they have mated successfully and we shall see their return next year. The males have the distinctive orange tips on their wings from which they get their name while the female is less conspicuous, lacking the orange tips and distinguished from the whites by the green mottled underwing which she shares with the male.
Orange tip - this male was hiding from the April chill earlier this year, in the warmth of our greenhouse. Photo © L. Cooper
Early May saw the arrival of the first speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus). The holly blue is a delicate and beautiful butterfly with their blue wings brightening up the early spring garden. It gets its name from its preference for holly (Ilex aquifolium), but it also lays its eggs on ivy (Hedera helix), especially the summer brood.
Holly blue - while males and females differ slightly on the upper wing, they are less distinguishable on the underside. Photo © Peter Eeles, Butterfly Conservation
Speckled wood - often seen sunning themselves on a log in the Garden's woodland areas, or around the shed. Photo © L.Cooper
There have been plenty of large and small whites (Pieris brassicae and Pieris rapae, respectively) around since spring, dancing together over our pond and in the meadow. Although common and seen as a pest to many allotment owners, you can’t deny their beauty when in flight.
Large white - setting aside one or two cabbages for caterpillars, and removing them from the rest, could be a way to happily coexist with the small and large white butterflies. Photo © Tim Melling, Butterfly Conservation
But it’s these last two weeks in July which have been the most impressive. The arrival of the sun has brought more butterflies with it and it never ceases to amaze me just how much wildlife can be found in this little acre of green in the heart of London.
On the 15 July, I sighted the first visits of the year to the Garden from 3 different species. First up, a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) passed me by near the pond resting just long enough in the reeds to admire its bright colours.
Red admiral. Photo © Neil Hulme, Butterfly Conservation
The red admiral was followed shortly by a skipper flying around the hedgerow flower near the greenhouse. These were planted with the aim of providing a nectar source for insects so it good to see that it is working! Unfortunately, the skipper lived up to the reason for its name and was quick to fly away so I have neither a photo or species identification, but I think it was likely to be a large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus).
Large skipper - the members of this genus adopt a typical pose making it easy to identify them as skippers. Photo © Ian A Kirk, Butterfly Conservation
I then spent about an hour, on and off, trying to spot an elusive bright orange butterfly which kept tempting me, then flying away at the last moment. It looked too bright to be a British specimen at first and I thought it may possibly have been an escapee from the Museum's nearby butterfly house that is on the East Lawn for the summer. However, when it landed long enough for me to take the poor picture below, before it took to the wing and disappeared, I was able to identify it as a comma (Polygonia c-album). Although it was a first for me, it has been a frequent visitor to the garden in previous years and it is resident in the country.
A comma - bigger than I imagined, but recognisable from the rough wing edges. The species gets its name from a white 'c' shape on the underside of its otherwise brown wing. Unfortunately, this one didn't stop for long enough for me to capture this signature marking. Photo © L. Cooper
A couple of days later, not only did our new volunteer Alora spot the first six spot burnet moth of the year but a little while later we had a Garden first. A ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) settled in the meadow long enough for us to take a picture and identify it by the distinctive rows of rings on the underside of its wings (n.b. they do also have rings on the upper wings). This was a very exciting day!
Ringlet - not only a first for the Garden but also an uncommon species in London. Photo © N. Lake
Today I can also add a brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) to the list of my sightings, feeding on purple loosetrife nectar by the Garden’s waterfall.
A brimstone feeding - my first sighting of the species was earlier this year at Juniper Hall. It’s lovely to see them here in the Wildlife Garden too. Photo © L. Cooper
I’ll keep looking for butterflies this summer, and you can also join in with Butterfly Conservation Trust’s Big Butterfly Count. It’s the world’s largest butterfly survey and by taking part you can help monitor the health of our environment. The Big Butterfly Count is really simple and great for all ages, and even comes with a free easy to use smartphone app to help you’re your recordings. To find out more visit the Butterfly Conservation website.
Thank you Larissa!
P.S. Drop by the Garden to see if you see some of the same butterflies as Larissa or, to see exotic butterflies and moths that aren't native to our shores, visit the Museum's Sensational Butterflies exhibition. It's in it's last few weeks so be sure to come along before it ends on the 15 September.