Drumraney Art Exhibition Helps Butterflies

Article by Richella Duggan

Last Autumn we were contacted by Peter Cunningham from Westmeath – about a special exhibition of butterfly-themed art launching in early October in the parish of Drumraney County Westmeath.

Peter explained that he and fellow parishioner Christy Grimes were arranging an exhibition of artworks by three disabled artists from the UK – Christine Bielby, William Birch and Elaine Garsden. The artists are keen butterfly enthusiasts and wished to donate all proceeds from the exhibition to Butterfly Conservation Ireland. I was honoured to attend the exhibition on behalf of BCI – to meet the three artists and their carer Linda Lord – and the many people of Drumraney parish who attended and supported the exhibition on the night.

Christine, Elaine and William have been visiting Drumraney for many years and join the community every year for several months – living in a house close to the Holy well of Saint Enán – a hermit who established a monastery in Drumraney around 588AD.

Over the years Linda has managed the area around their home in harmony with nature – planting additional native trees and by creating a large pond area. Christine, Elaine and William tend the garden and sow wildflowers to support butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

The exhibition was hosted by Fr Oliver Devine in the parish Church of the Immaculate Conception on October 4th, which appropriately is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Before the exhibition launch – at a mass to celebrate the feast day – Fr Oliver said the artists were following in the footsteps of St Francis, who found God in the beauty of nature. He spoke of how the hermit St Enán was closely connected to the wildness of the locality – and how appropriate it was now that the area was maintained and cherished by Christine, Elaine, William and Linda.

A power-point presentation in the church displayed photographs some of the work carried out at their home and garden and showed the artists preparing for the exhibition. The source of inspiration for their art was clear to see in the images shown, which were filled with amazing greenery and colourful wildflowers; it looks to be an ideal habitat for many of our butterfly species.

Peter explained to me that William, Christine and Elaine had joined the parish prayer group some years ago and from time to time they presented him with drawings and paintings. When they expressed a wish to hold an exhibition someday,  Peter and Christy Grimes decided that they would organise the exhibition in Drumraney church. With Linda and Christy’s support, the three artists dedicated several months leading up to the exhibition to completing the many beautiful works which lined the walls of the church.

Last week I was invited back to the parish to accept an amazing donation of €425. Butterfly Conservation Ireland would like to express sincere gratitude to the people of Drumraney for their incredible generosity and hospitality.

We’d like to thank Peter, Christy and Linda for the considerable work that they put into setting up the exhibition and to Fr Oliver Devine for hosting the event.

Most of all we want to thank Christine, Elaine and William. It was inspiring to witness their wonderful talents and their genuine love of nature and butterflies. I look forward to visiting them again when they return to Drumraney next year.

The Drumraney artists showing their work.
Habitat created at Drumraney.
This flower-rich area looks ideal for butterflies.
Springtime at Drumraney with hawthorn and buttercups in full bloom.

How to care for Hibernating Butterflies

The following article has been revised and re-issued due to the volume of queries we receive concerning butterflies over-wintering in houses.

In Ireland, we have four butterfly species that over-winter in the adult form.  We have a number of moths that hibernate as adults. One of these is the iconic Herald moth. A group of this species will sometimes shelter in your attic to wait for spring.

The Small Tortoiseshell butterfly has a habit of regularly entering rooms in houses to pass the winter (Occasionally, the Peacock will enter a house to over-winter, although this is unusual). The Small Tortoiseshell, a beautifully marked butterfly likes to stay close to us in late summer and will even stake out likely hibernation sites indoors especially during August and September before settling to fold its wings for winter in some obscure spot in our homes, sheds or even cars!

This well-studied butterfly has some fascinating characteristics. It has shown an ability to relocate specific sites when it has been disturbed from the site, suggesting a spatial memory; if a nettle on which a female is laying her eggs is moved, the female returns to the spot where the nettle was located, not to the site it was removed to. The butterfly is very mobile and some of ‘our’ Small Tortoiseshells may have travelled from Britain and Europe. Males establish and defend territories but if he finds a female he switches to defending the female from other males. She makes him work hard by flying away at speed to see if he can keep up. Sometimes a female (perhaps a female that has mated already) will fly into territory held by other males to enable her to escape in the ensuing confusion. A suitor may have to fight several males throughout the rest of the day. He will drive them away by engaging in a series of aerial combats, with high altitude climbs when he tries to fly above the intruder. When the intruder is expelled, the male returns to a co-operating female who usually remains perched where he left her.

Sometimes, though, she gives him the slip, giving him an anxious search as he inspects the surrounding nettle bed for her. Some females hide, and later accept defence by another male. Even a female who has cooperated with a male all day tries to lose him when she goes to roost in the nettles in the evening by dropping into the nettles and running along the ground. If the male manages to stay with her, she suddenly becomes quiet and allows mating, which lasts all night. Presumably, her demanding behaviour ensures that only the fittest males father offspring, ensuring the health of the next generation. This provides a fascinating example of selection by the female of the fittest male.

Another, related feature of the butterfly is its impressive longevity. The over-wintering generation is long-lived, and individuals can survive for 10 months. The impressive life-span allows the female Small Tortoiseshell the chance to be selective; most female butterflies accept the first male encountered; these females lack the luxury of extended life to test male powers of endurance.

However, our Small Tortoiseshells have one significant challenge when they enter our homes to see out the winter in our bedrooms, living rooms and hallways. The butterflies are very careful to select the best spots, picking excellent hiding places in curtain folds, behind mirrors and pictures, in unused chimney brests, behind dressers and, to complete the concealment, their dark cryptic coloured undersides blend nicely with their chosen surface. However, the mod con that is central heating confounds their attempts to complete their winter slumber. Heat rouses the butterfly, causing it to believe that spring, with its sunshine, flowers and nettles beckon it to fly outdoors. The confused butterfly flies around lights and windows, trying to get out.

Householders who release the butterfly into the winter are usually dooming it. The butterfly rapidly loses the ability to fly when its body temperature plummets in the cold and is picked off by birds or mammals. The other problem is starvation. The butterfly built up vital fats by gorging on nectar in our gardens and countryside before switching off for winter and long periods of unseasonable activity reduces these reserves.

What should you do if you encounter an active Small Tortoiseshell in your home?

If this happens in warm spring weather release the butterfly in the knowledge that it’s time to let it go. It is now ready to feed on the spring flowers, move in search of territories, breeding grounds and mates.

If the butterfly wakes up in winter do not release the butterfly. It should be placed in a dry, transparent container lined with a folded section of kitchen roll to absorb moisture and placed in the salad drawer in the fridge, where the temperature is around four Celsius. The butterfly will soon settle and can be kept there until warm, sunny weather arrives in March or April.  Alternatively, remove the butterfly from the container when it is quiet and place in an unheated shed or room to complete its winter rest.

If the butterfly has been flying around for some time, it may need to be fed. Dissolve sugar or honey in a few millilitres of hot water, allow it to cool and use a cotton pad to absorb the sweetened solution. When cool, place the calmed butterfly (cooled in the salad drawer but not long enough to be made fully docile) on the pad, in softly-lit mild conditions. It should begin to feed. When it has finished, place in a cool place to sleep.

We advise against placing a hibernating butterfly in a very dark place such as a cupboard under the stairs. While cool and dark, it usually remains cool even when warmer temperatures return in spring. The result is that the butterfly never wakes up and will eventually die unless you find and release him/her.

Over the years I have successfully over-wintered adult Small Tortoiseshells and felt a burst of delight to watch the butterfly surge into the sunshine in spring. Interestingly, the released butterfly does not loiter. It flies strongly away, as though hyper-energised by the promise of brightness and freshness of a world renewed by the return of sunshine.

The Small Tortoiseshell. © J.Harding.

Harvest for Butterflies

Wild, native flowers and shrubs are in seed/fruit now. Here we describe how to harvest and sow five of the best!

Common Marjoram, a great draw for bees and butterflies in July and August. Pull off the dead flower, rub them vigorously between your thumb and forefinger and scatter over gravel or over a compost that consists of calcareous compost. Do not bury the seed. It should germinate in spring.  Photo J.Harding.
The seed head of Common Fleabane-a member of the daisy family-is much-loved by a large range of butterflies during August. Pull the dead flowers away from the peduncle to release the seed. Scatter over bare, damp, rich soil. Photo J.Harding.
Field Scabious is a lovely wayside flower and a favourite with bees in mid-summer.  In this photo, the seed is ready for collection. Simply remove the seed and scatter over gravel or dry, well-drained bare soil or over a compost that consists of calcareous compost.  Photo J. Harding.
Common Holly berries are ready for harvesting now. Pick the berries before they are deep red in colour. Crush the berries under water and remove the seed. Sow in a seed tray consisting of sharp grit and soil.  Make sure the seed is buried but not any deeper than 2-3 cm. Leave outdoors, fully exposed to the weather. The seed will germinate in spring or the following spring. Photo J.Harding.
This seed tray was sown with Devil’s-bit Scabious seed. This multi-flowering plant is the best native source of nectar in August and September, greatly favoured by all butterflies flying during these months. Simply remove the seed and place on the surface of damp compost-do not bury the seed. The seed should be exposed to the weather but placed above ground to protect it from mice. The seed will germinate in spring. Photo J.Harding.