My Christmas Butterfly

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has had an unprecedented number of inquiries over the past few months concerning how to care for Small Tortoiseshell butterflies spending the winter indoors.  We responded by posting advice (for example, see February archive) and via email. Some of the inquiries came from the United Kingdom. In this article, Wendy Bernice, who lives in West Yorkshire, describes her experience of caring for a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly in her home near Huddersfield. Wendy’s article is a reminder to release your Small Tortoiseshell now (or stagger release over the next three weeks)-while conditions are sunny and settled. There are many flying wild now, getting ready to breed. Enjoy Wendy’s story.

December 28th 2019 was the date on the first photo of my Small Tortoiseshell butterfly. It first appeared clinging to the inside glass of the patio door in the lounge. As it swooped towards the lights, I started rushing frantically around switching off lights and lamps. Over the next few days, it disappeared and then kept re-appearing. What should I do? I knew nothing about butterflies and thought they only lived for a few days. I searched on the Internet for help and finally decided my small walk-in wardrobe would be the best spot to place him/her. I did not want to leave the butterfly in the garage, the fridge or the attic, I would never see it again.

I placed the butterfly in a small cardboard box and took it upstairs and left the box in my dark wardrobe. I had recently been given a gift of delicious honey straight from the beehives of French bees. Lucky butterfly in for a feast! I dissolved about half a teaspoonful of honey in a small amount of warm water and then put a cotton wool ball in the water to soak it up. I placed the cotton wool ball inside the box next to the butterfly, leaving the lid open but closing the wardrobe doors. I put a fresh cotton wool ball into the bowl every three days. It was all guesswork.

After a few days when I looked in to see how my butterfly was, it was lying at the bottom of the box and I thought it was dead. I did not try to move it immediately but left it there. A couple of days later when I looked into the box it had disappeared and then I discovered it in the bedroom sitting on the dog bed – not a good place to sit! I placed it back in the box, but over the next few days it kept escaping into the bedroom.

One day it was on my shoe, the next day on the curtains and finally in an empty dog bowl in the adjoining bathroom. I carried it carefully back into the wardrobe in the dog bowl and looked around to see how it kept escaping. There was a gap underneath the doors, so I blocked it with a small blanket which solved the problem. After blocking the light from the bottom of the doors the butterfly did not leave the dog bowl. The butterfly moved about in the bowl and fed often on the cotton wool balls. I had to go in and out of the wardrobe for clothes, bags and shoes fumbling about in the half-light so as not to disturb it and carefully replacing the blanket every time at the bottom of the doors so that the light would not attract it. This carried on until the day of release.

On Jesmond’s recommendation, the day of release finally came on a beautiful sunny day on the 25th March 2020 in Kirkheaton near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Happily, I carried the dog bowl to the open window. (At this point it is relevant to mention that I live in a chalet bungalow, which means there is a roof beneath my bedroom window). The ledge was not large enough for me to place the bowl on and wait for the butterfly to depart.

I thought it might go on to my finger for take-off, but when I placed my finger near, it started to panic flapping its wings. I tried to transfer it to the window ledge and to my horror it went tumbling off the ledge and down the sloping roof into the gutter and out of sight. I was paralysed with fear, was the gutter filled with water and had I foolishly sent my beautiful butterfly to its death after weeks of tender care. I stood rooted to the spot in disbelief hoping that the little butterfly would pop out above the parapet, but it did not.

What next? I went into the garage and got out the step ladders and precariously placed them on two separate steps leading from the house – a stupid and dangerous idea. I managed to reach up and put my hand in the gutter, which was nice and dry. I returned the steps to the garage. Had my butterfly survived, I needed to know. I then had an idea to attach a mirror to the end of my grass rake. I then held the rake vertically, from the ground, with the mirror attached on the top trying to look into the gutter to see if the butterfly was still there. The mirror was not very stable and kept moving. I did not think the butterfly was there, but honestly not really sure. What more could I do without injuring myself? I’m sure it survived.

I gloomily ate my lunch and then had another idea. I retrieved the step ladders from the garage and placed them firmly on the patio. I then tied the mirror back on to the rake and this time I went up the step ladder and held the rake horizontally towards the gutter, and finally, I could see along the length of the gutter which contained some soil and greenery but no butterfly. I was happy at last knowing my butterfly had survived.

I saw two Tortoiseshell butterflies flying close to each other in the garden at this time and landing on a bush together. I’d like to think, no I’m sure, that one of those butterflies was my Christmas butterfly.

Close-up of Wendy’s Small Tortoiseshell.
Small Tortoiseshell at the window, ready for departure.