Garden of Eden

Eden translates as delight. And this is what butterflies bring, especially to our intimate outdoor spaces. They bring personal excitement because for gardeners the boundary line between indoors and the great outdoors is blurred in the garden. The garden is a personal space, especially gardens that are secluded, private, personal havens where we can be ourselves, sometimes more than it is possible to be in the house because there we must toil. We must carry out the necessary tasks in the house. In the garden, we can choose to act or not.

In a garden to act is often to create. We can create living spaces for our fellow creatures, or choose not to. Yesterday, I spoke to a friend about his front garden. He had removed rather unkempt but Small Tortoiseshell bedecked lavenders with red-flowering begonias and a house geranium. I peered for a moment to assure myself that the new plants were not plastic.

“Why did you do that?” I queried, mystified because I know that he loved watching the tortoiseshells.

“Oh, the bees kept flying into the house”.

“You won’t have any more bees, don’t worry. What you put in here will not be touched by any bee or butterfly”.

In this case, the house has extended into the garden.  The garden has become tame, a place where plants are cabinet or mantelpiece ornaments.  There is no interaction now between man and nature, which has been expelled.  Nature is now a refugee, searching for a sanctuary. In the developed landscapes of our cities and towns as well as in the more sterilized intensively managed countryside we need to provide safe havens. Create opportunities for life to fill your garden. Butterflies can make your garden their home, with a little thought and the correct choices and actions. And there is the pleasure that grows from knowing that these butterflies, free though they are, are ‘your’ butterflies. You may even get to know individual butterflies. A kink in a wing and you know that you saw this one yesterday. Some butterflies pause for minutes but some stay for days, even weeks. One Common Blue remained in my garden for nearly a month. I said good morning to him each day until his time on earth was done. I miss him still.

Some butterflies seem to want to know you. From early July to late September each year, a small number of my garden’s Small Tortoiseshells enter my house to roost during wet weather or for the night. These stay inside for days when it is cold or raining, typically perched on a wall, ceiling or curtain until sunshine returns. Then he or she finds his or her way out through an open door or window. The occasional butterfly will roost in the house every night, leaving when it warms up the following morning. The Small Tortoiseshell is, of course, a species that passes the winter as an adult butterfly, so the individuals that come indoors regularly in autumn have already decided on their winter abode. Very occasionally, the Peacock butterfly will enter your house to stay for the winter.

Everyone knows that butterflies like nectar but not all flowers have this food.  Select true species, avoid cultivars. Most lavenders contain nectar, so does Buddleia davidii, Common Knapweed, Common Marjoram, Common Fleabane, Purple Loosestrife, Water Mint, Red Clover, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Devil’s-bit Scabious and Wild Angelica to name a mere handful of flowers. All easy to grow, all perennials, all sure to draw in lots of butterflies if planted in sunny, sheltered terrain. A nettle patch against a sunny hedge or wall for the Vanessids (Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma) to lay their eggs on and you will have the butterflies using your garden as a breeding site too. If your hedge has Common Holly, Spindle. Common Buckthorn, Alder Buckthorn among the Common Hawthorn you will be likely to attract many moths and butterflies such as the Holly Blue.

Some ecologists scoff a little at gardens, dismissing these as poor substitutes for ‘real habitats’. This misses some crucial points. Gardens can be managed to suit butterflies in ways that many wild habitats cannot be, simply because of a lack of resources. Gardens can have a greater range of habitats crammed into small spaces than wild areas usually contain. Gardens mark the immediate interface between man and nature and being personal spaces, we are much more likely to take personal responsibility for what happens there. While gardens will never be habitats for the more localised, specialised butterflies and moths unless the gardens adjoin these habitats and might be considered part of them, a large proportion of our butterfly and moth species have been recorded in gardens. The more effectively the larger garden is managed for nature, the more attractive it becomes for wild creatures.

Some highly unexpected butterflies have been recorded in Irish gardens. These include the Silver-washed Fritillary, Green Hairstreak and Wall Brown. The Comma, a recent arrival still spreading from the south-east has already been spotted in Irish gardens. In the past two days, July 15th and 16th, I have seen Large Whites, Small Whites, Green-veined Whites, Small Coppers (two stubborn males bitterly contesting the same perch post on a Common Knapweed), Holly Blues, a Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock,  Meadow Browns and Ringlets in my garden. A few weeks ago, a Common Blue peppered the Black Medic plants pushing up through gaps in my patio stones with eggs, so I hope to see her offspring in August.

Gardens offer a great way of tracking the fortunes of our butterflies, particularly the widespread species. Get involved in our garden survey; here’s how to do this:

https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/National-Garden-Butterfly-Survey.pdf.

See the advice on gardening for butterflies here:  https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/butterflies/gardening-for-butterflies/

Finally, gardening for butterflies encourages bees, grasshoppers, amphibians, birds – all of these groups can do with your care and concern.

Here are some butterflies in my garden. Why not entice them into yours?

Peacock butterfly.©J.Harding.
Holly Blue.©J.Harding.
Small Copper.©J.Harding.

July Butterflies

The hot, dry weather continues as 2018 is turning out to be a memorable, once-in-a-generation summer here in Ireland and in Britain. However, the dry conditions may pose trouble for species that breed on herbs on thin soils now affected by drought and for the grass-feeders especially those that breed on grasses in open, unshaded areas on thin and well-drained soils.

It has been a bumper year for Marsh Fritillary, now finished flying for the year. The butterfly has been expanding its distribution by taking advantage of the warmth to fly beyond the often narrow confines of its sites to seek breeding ground further afield. Another butterfly that does this is our largest native butterfly, the Silver-washed Fritillary. In early July it is at the start of its flight period and fresh examples look really magnificent so get out to the woods and look along the tracks where flowering bramble occurs. The Silver-washed Fritillary is unlikely to be missed if present. The large size, dashing yet graceful flight and deep orange upper sides marked with black bars (male only) and black spots (both sexes) make it a striking butterfly.

Avoid confusion with its slightly smaller but even faster-flying relative, the Dark Green Fritillary. The males of both species look quite similar on their upper surfaces but the undersides differ more clearly. The Silver-washed Fritillary lives up to its name by having washed silver bands on a greenish hind-wing, while silver spots on a greenish background indicate a Dark Green Fritillary. Each species preferred habitat is often different, with Dark Green Fritillary preferring more open, grassy sites but the Dark Green Fritillary may appear in large clearings in woodland and along some wood edges where the Silver-washed Fritillary flies.

The first generation of Small Tortoiseshells is flying, but most of these will not fly for long. The majority will remain on nettle beds, breeding to produce a long-lived second brood most of which will pass the winter as adult butterflies. A small number of first generation Small Tortoiseshells will not breed this year but will over-winter together with the second generation butterflies. However, some second-generation adults may breed this year to make a third brood, especially if weather conditions allow. The result of delayed breeding is that up to three generations of Small Tortoiseshells may be spending the winter as adult butterflies. The majority of over-wintering Small Tortoiseshells will be second generation adults that emerged as adults towards the end of August and during September.

Green-veined Whites will build their numbers to peak later in July, while Small Skipper and Essex Skipper butterflies are on the wing now, the latter in County Wexford where good numbers have already been seen. The new generation of Brimstones is beginning to emerge and unsurprisingly given the heat it is appearing earlier this year. Earlier emergence may mean it is active for a longer time and this will probably result in higher numbers being predated before it retires to scrub and woods to pass the winter as an adult butterfly.

Less evident but no less interesting are the larvae present now. Peacock larvae are finishing their growth and the Small Blue larvae are departing their disintegrating Kidney Vetch flowers to seek sanctuary in the substrate below.  They can be seen now on good sites feeding openly on the seed on the now flimsy inflorescence.  Some will be seen on stalks, heading downwards. These larvae will pass the next eight or nine months as fully-fed larvae. These will pupate from April to fly in May and June. Timing is everything for the larvae; they need to be full-grown by the time the food plant’s seed (the part of the plant the larva feeds on) falls to the soil. If not fully-fed by then, it is likely to starve. Some have probably starved already, as many Kidney Vetch plants on sand dunes have expired in the arid, rainless weeks. Expect less Small Blues next year where the plants have shrivelled.

Now follows a butterfly seen only by the fortunate or extremely dedicated searcher. The Purple Hairstreak is a tree-top dweller flying now in oak woods or woods containing oaks. However, it is very limited in its known distribution in Ireland because of the scarcity of oak woodland and woodland with good stands of oaks. Binoculars are the usual method of discerning it high up in the leafy oak tops, spinning in the sunlight in a delicious combination of purple and silver. The oak woods in County Wicklow are probably where the highest populations occur but the oak woods in Killarney National Park are reputed for its Purple Hairstreak numbers. The oaks adjacent to the American Embassador’s residence in the Pheonix Park, Dublin also has the butterfly in very good numbers.

This year Ringlets are superabundant in their favoured habitats but a concern exists for the numbers expected next year. The larvae feed on lush grasses growing in areas where some shade exists. The heat and drought, if it continues for another few weeks, may lead to a deterioration in its grasses, but these conditions are perhaps even more likely to reduce the ranks of next year’s Meadow Browns, which prefer grasses growing in open conditions bearing the full desiccating impact of hot dry weather.

However, these common butterflies will bounce back in the following seasons given the return of rain which will renew butterfly food plants. But for now, just enjoy July 2018.

Silver-washed Fritillary male. ©J.Harding.
Silver-washed Fritillary underside. Note the silver band crossing near the centre of the hindwing.©J.Harding.
Dark Green Fritillary male.©J.Harding.
Dark Green Fritillary underside. This has prominent silver spots on the hind-wing. © J.Harding.
This female Brimstone emerged from her pupa on July 8th at Lullybeg, County Kildare. ©J.Harding.
Small Skipper female.© J.Harding.
Essex Skipper female.© J.Harding.
Purple Hairstreak.© J.Harding.
Small Blue larva, head downwards, feeding on Kidney Vetch seed.© J.Harding.

 

 

 

Event Report: Burren walk at Fahee North, County Clare on Sunday July 1st

This very well-attended event began against the backdrop of doubtful weather. After searing heat on Friday and Saturday, Sunday  was cool, overcast and windy, not a good sign for a butterfly outing. A consoling thought was my retention of three lovely specimens caught the previous day to show at the event.

But shortly after the meeting time of 2pm, the cloud thinned and the sun shone kindly, providing a comfortable heat. A Silver-washed Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary and a micro moth Pyrausta purpuralis were shown to great interest and appreciation from everyone there, and the fritillaries, being recent emergents, looked especially lovely.

Posing nicely for photographs, all three took to the air and off we went. The plan for the walk involved walking two adjoining but distinct habitats. The first area  is mainly shattered limestone pavement with scattered scrub. This area was very disappointing. The thin soils here hold little moisture regardless of the weather conditions but the persistent heat and  lack of precipitation has resulted in a starkly parched limestone grassland. The ground vegetation is largely a withered grey and straw colour, and butterflies and moths appear to have deserted the limestone. Even violet plants in semi-shade, used by the Pearl-bordered Fritillary were seen to be in the early stages of desiccation. At this stage of the summer, we could expect Common Blue, Dark Green Fritillary, Grayling, Small Heath among others here but only about five individual butterflies were seen on the limestone.

A change of scene was needed. We walked to the adjoining site which consists of deeper soil with tall grassland and scattered limestone pavement. Our luck changed with Common Blue, Small Tortoiseshell, Dark Green Fritillary, Grayling, Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Small Heath netted and shown. Marsh Fritillary eggs laid on the underside of a Devil’s-bit Scabious leaf were shown. This butterfly has finished flying and is succeeded by its larger cousin, the Dark Green Fritillary which has two large communal roosts on the site. However, a sobering reminder of life’s ephemeral beauty was afforded by the discovery of a killing ground containing the dismembered remains of dozens  of the Dark Green Fritillary, as well as a Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly. A keen-eyed predator may have found the roost and if so, is exploiting this larder. It is the first time I have witnessed this concentration of dead specimens. The sight of the colourful wings arbitrarily adorning grey limestone reminds one of the final line of the poem Butterflies (by Rosita Boland): “Gaudy and ephemeral”.

One creature that appears safe from the unknown but probable avian predator is a fully-fed Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth larva, which was found barreling over limestone on its way to pupate.

On a cheery note, the female Common Blues present were the blue mariscolore form, one of our loveliest butterfly sights. This occurs usually in the north and west and its occurrence in these areas may be an ecological response to a generally cooler, wetter climate. Further east where rainfall is lower the females are more inclined to have brown upper wings but in Clare blue is more prevalent.

We watched a Grayling heat up on limestone, a Small Heath patrol a patch  he was compelled to share with Ringlets. We wondered would there be as many specimens of the grass-feeding butterflies here next year if the current drought continued. We will not say this too loudly, but it needs to rain!

Thanks to all who made the event so pleasurable, especially Burrenbeo Trust and to the local farmers in the area for allowing us to walk these beautiful areas.

All photographs are © J.Harding.

Male Dark Green Fritillary basking on limestone.
Dark Green Fritillary graveyard at Fahee North.
This Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth larva is off to seek a pupation site. It will fly next year, most likely during May 2019.