Variety and Genetic Diversity

One of nature’s great wonders is the diversity of life on earth. Every conceivable habitat seems to have its own living things that can make a home there. But there is also diversity within a single species. This variety needs to be protected. Not only is this interesting and beautiful, but the existence of differences between individuals of the same species may also allow certain individuals to adapt to changes better than others, enabling the species to survive when conditions change.  Take a look at the following five photographs of the male Muslin moth, a moth that flies in Ireland in late spring and early summer. This year it has emerged earlier, no doubt the result of a warm, sunny April. The Irish form of the male is snowy white/cream. The male found in England, Wales and Scotland is grey-brown or sooty-grey.

All five were trapped in the same place last Friday (24th April). Each has a different number of spots/markings. Take a closer look at Green-veined White butterflies-these are highly variable too, on both the underside and upper-sides. Some authorities believe that there is a deeper significance in this variation, believing that the Green-veined White is in an active state of evolution. Others believe that the vast variety in this butterfly’s appearance across its vast range reflects its interaction with its habitats-in other words, the variety in wing colouration is a response to environmental factors, not genetic factors.

Butterflies and moths really are individuals, not products of mass production. Enjoy life’s variety!

Muslin Moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin Moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin moth male. Photo J.Harding

Lá Barr Buí

Tagann an Barr Buí le lá gréine Aibreáin isteach sna coillte grianmhara, le taobh na bhfálta sceacha, bóithríní a ritheann trí thalamh feirme, gnáthóga foscúla fliucha agus fiú gairdíní fiáine móra.

Bíonn an Barr Buí fireannach gníomhach an chuid is mó den lá fad is a bhíonn an ghrian ag taitneamh. Eitlíonn sé go minic feadh imill na gnáthóige agus é ag cuardach baineannaigh. Is féileacán álainn so-aitheanta é, le sciatháin bhána a bhfuil barra oráiste orthu. Tá an baineannach bán le barra dubha ar a sciatháin agus is fusa í a mheascadh suas leis an mBánóg Bheag agus leis an mBanóg Uaine. Tá íochtair na ngnéasanna cosúil le chéile, agus patrún deas le dath an chaonaigh orthu a gcabhraíonn leis an bhféileacán meascadh leis an bpeirsil bhó nuair a théann sé ar an bhfara um thráthnóna nó le linn drochaimsire.

Eitlíonn an fireannach anonn agus anall os cionn cheantar ag seiceáil aon rud a bhfuil cuma bhaineannaigh air. Taitníonn le go leor breathnóirí bheith ag faire ar an bhféileacán, ach bíonn sé deacair grianghraf ó tharla go bhfuil an fireannach an-mhíshocair. Ní chothaíonn na fireannaigh go minic, ach nuair a stadann sé le haghaidh deoch ag peasair fhiáin nó biolar gréagáin, ní chaitheann sé ach tamall beag ann.

Ní bhíonn an baineannach a oiread céanna gníomhaí ar chor ar bith, agus chomh luath agus a chúplálann sí, caitheann sí cuid mhaith dá cuid ama i bhfolach ó fhireannaigh. Is crá croí iad fireannaigh do bhaineannaigh a chúpláil cheana féin mar téann siad sa tóir ar bhaineannaigh atá ag iarraidh cothú agus a gcuid uibheacha a bhreith ar a suaimhneas.

Tá bealach ann do bhaineannaigh na fireannaigh a sheachaint, áfach. Téann na fireannaigh ar an bhfara níos luaithe sa lá ná na baineannaigh, chomh luaithe lena ceathair a chlog.

Bíonn an baineannach níos gníomhaí um thráthnóna. Lorgann an baineannach biolar gréagáin chun a huibheacha a bhreith ann. Toisc gur máthair mhaith í, déanann sí cinnte gan ach ubh amháin a bhreith ar bhláth an phlanda ionas go mbeidh go leor bia ag a hóga.

Seachnaíonn sí ubh a bhreith ar bhia planda a bhfuil ubh air cheana féin. Déanann sí é seo toisc go n-íosfaidh an bolb óg ubh nó bolb níos lú má thagann sé air.

Déanaigí cinnte go gcuardaíonn sibh bóithríní grianmhara duilleacha cosúil leis an gceann sa ghrianghraf; is cinnte go bhfeicfidh sibh é!

Barr Buí. Ghriangraf J.Harding
Barr Buí  ar Tursarraing bheag. Grianghraf J.Harding
Barr Buí Ghriangraf J.Harding
Bóithrín i Maol Hosae, Contae na Mí.

Unseen, Unknown, Gone Part 2

The main drivers of decline are intensification and abandonment so these are the areas that must be tackled. In the case of intensification, foodplants for butterflies usually disappear or become unsuitable due to their absorption of chemical inputs. The character of the vegetation around the foodplants is often altered making the breeding habitat unsuitable. Where abandonment of traditional farming practices occurs, the habitat undergoes successional changes, where the grassland grows taller, ranker species dominate, eventually displacing or shading host-plants. The grassland also develops scrub and eventually may revert to woodland, eliminating much of the biodiversity, including butterflies.

There must be a de-intensification of farming to save the biodiversity of the broader farmed landscape. A return to hay-saving, which is made more practicable by our warmer summers, should replace silage-making with involves earlier and multiple cuts of the grassland, killing the chicks and eliminating nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds. Multiple cuts also remove breeding sites for butterflies, as host-plants such as Lady’s Smock are cut in June while they are holding butterfly larvae. A major reduction of chemical inputs is needed. Recent research indicates that added nitrates taken in by host-plants kill larvae or kill the host-plant, depending on the concentration applied.

Where intensive farming continues, strong regulation of application practices to prevent leaking of chemicals to nearby land containing high biodiversity value should be applied. These regulations should include buffer zones and spraying in windless conditions. In these areas, the marginal sites that are unfarmed and still support wild creatures, such as road verges, should be cut as hay meadows. Smaller fields should be reintroduced by reinstituting hedgerows consisting of native trees and shrubs. Drain-blocking should be carried out to restore ponds to farmland. While there may be little data on the presence of amphibians on farmland, I suspect that a great decline has taken place.

Stocking rates (number of sheep/cattle per hectare) need to be reduced and we must be prepared to pay a little more for milk and meat. It is feasible to rear animals on unfertilised pasture-this still occurs on smaller holdings, even in high value pasture in County Meath. For EU member states, Common Agriculture Policy supports can be re-directed to the achievement of biodiversity targets, not just on high nature value farmland (low‑input farming systems with high biodiversity and low-intensity management) but also on intensively farmed land.

In areas of high nature value farmland where people are leaving the land, socio-economic supports to promote the continuance of traditional farming must be introduced. Some very good templates already exist, such as in the Aran Islands and the Burren ( where farmers are financially incentivised for results, not actions. These programmes work and deliver great results for biodiversity and people. The extension of these programmes to other areas of high biodiversity value should be instituted.
Furthermore, land within nature reserves needs to be farmed/managed-otherwise areas set aside for nature will continue to show deteriorating habitats and species loss.

There are unfarmed areas that hold high biodiversity value. These include out hedges, grassy verges, parks and gardens. The management of the hedgerows along roads is sometimes very suitable but cutting adjoining verges in June is very destructive and must be avoided-cut from September instead. Leaving a thin strip uncut should be considered where possible. Any grant of planning permission for a one-off rural house must include a hedgerow retention element. The onslaught on hedges in such circumstances is extremely worrying and aesthetically offensive. Anyone offending against this condition must be compelled to remove laurel/beech/leylandii hedging.

Parks need to be managed without herbicides, pesticides and insecticides unless there is a necessity, such as rodent control. Spraying of Stinging Nettles, for example, is a serious offence against nature and should be banned.

Likewise in our gardens, we should garden with nature as a top priority. Habitat creation and management bring enormous personal joy and benefits for nature. The approach, which essentially involves attempting to make natural and semi-natural habitats using native plants really works. A national network of back garden nature reserves can be created, a source of energy, pleasure and biodiversity abundance to provide a small pay-back for what we have taken away.

High nature value farmland managed for nature in the Burren, County Clare. Photo J.Harding

Unseen, Unknown, Gone

According to the United Nation’s World Urbanisation Prospects, at some date between 1st July 2006 and 1st July 2007, a major milestone in the history of humanity was passed, largely unremarked. The percentage of the world’s populations living in urban areas passed 50%. In 2018 that figure rose to 55% and is expected to reach 68% in 2050.

This development is taking place alongside the increase in the size and population of cities. This is changing profoundly many aspects of human life, exposing more people to pollution, making people more vulnerable to pandemics, mental and emotional health difficulties by making people more concentrated.

There are potential benefits of urbanisation-it may be easier to deliver health, education, housing to a concentrated rather than to a dispersed population.

Whether we want this type of mass urbanisation or not, it is happening. Man is leaving the land, where increased use of chemicals and machinery requires fewer workers and moving to cities to find a home, employment and a new way of living.

Humans are losing contact with the natural world. The world of glass, steel, concrete, smoke, noise, buildings, roads and anonymous masses of people replaces open sky, trees, grass, clean rivers, lakes, animals and neighbours.

People living more and more indoor lives often don’t know what time of year it is-the idea of seasonality, of the cycle of the year, means little or nothing to us when we have central heating and light at all times at the flick of a switch or touch of a fob. If you think I am exaggerating, I have frequently asked urban-living second-level students what season we are in. Rarely have I received a correct answer.

Even when urban dwellers know that it is hotter and brighter in summer and colder and darker in winter there is so much that is missed. As I glance out my window this April morning, the native hedges outside are sprinkled with fresh, lettuce-coloured foliage, the birches similarly are brightening. Only my oaks remain stubbornly unresponsive as yet.  But their time will come soon. The grassy areas are a subtly deeper green, highlighting the deeper yellow of the flowering Cowslips, a real delight in April. These succeed their fading primula cousins, the Primrose. Change is unregistered by many of us who live in towns. We just don’t see it.

And what we don’t see is not happening.

The fear is that as species slip from the obscurity of decline into the oblivion of extinction, no-one sees it happen. We are too far away, in our artificial urban world. If you think I exaggerate, look at Keelings, the fruit growers in north County Dublin. This firm cannot find Irish people to pick fruit and must import workers from Bulgaria to considerable public disquiet. But it demonstrates that the Irish people, once close to the land increasingly have no relationship with it. The same issue has arisen in England where Romanians have been flown in to pick fruit and harvest vegetables although some English people have agreed to do the work.

The changes in society and settlement patterns are a worry for nature. We are not in west Africa to see China, the world’s biggest timber importer, demolishing the rain forests. We don’t see the billions of tonnes of raw sewage  China discharges into the Pacific Ocean every year. We didn’t see the extinction of the Javan Rhinoceros, discovered in 1988 and extinct in 2010.

Why should we? These places are far from our homes. True. But we don’t see the dire damage done here. We don’t see or care about the extinction of raised bogs. We don’t see (or care about?) the decline of creatures we presumably love, such as butterflies and birds. The Corncrake, Lapwing, Curlew, Eurasian Skylark, Meadow Pippit all in trouble, some of these facing extinction.

In 2006 Butterfly Conservation UK published research from the Rothamsted agricultural research facility on moth populations that ran over a 35 year period, 1968-2002. The findings are that moth populations have undergone a remarkable decline, worse than that experienced by birds, butterflies and wildflowers. Two-thirds of the 337 moth species were declining; 80 species by 70% or above. This has a massive knock-on impact on the other species that share moths’ ecosystems. In The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015 published by Butterfly Conservation UK (I mention the UK because there is far more data available there) it was stated that 76% of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterfly species declined in either abundance or occurrence (or both) over the past four decades (since 1976).

In Ireland, the data is less extensive but the conclusions reached in the 2010 Red List for butterflies shows that 33% of the Irish butterflies are in decline; of these 18% is under threat of extinction and 15% is near threatened.

However, since 2010 the situation may have worsened. There are, for example, some species that are likely be added to the threat of extinction categories. What adds to the alarm is that some formerly very common and still widespread butterflies, such as the Small Heath are in deeper trouble ten years on from the 2010 assessment.

Another insightful indicator of how butterflies are performing is found in the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator:1990-2011. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator is one of the status indicators on biodiversity in Europe. It is based on the population trends of 17 butterfly species in 19 countries. This report presents the fourth update of this indicator now covering 22 years. A number of species found in Ireland were included in the assessment. These are Dingy Skipper, Orange-tip, Common Blue, Small Blue, Marsh Fritillary, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Small Heath. The supranational EU trends of the 17 butterfly species of the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator showed that Dingy Skipper, Orange-tip and Small Blue populations were stable but that Common Blue, Marsh Fritillary, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Small Heath were in decline. Overall, the indicator shows that since 1990 butterfly populations have declined by almost 50 %. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator shows a clear decline, and the main drivers behind this are identified as intensification and abandonment.  Additional factors are urbanisation and afforestation of grasslands.

The key factor identified is agricultural intensification, which involves a wide range of activities, including the conversion of unimproved grasslands to arable crops, and permanent grasslands into temporary grasslands, heavy use of fertilisers, drainage, the use of herbicides, insecticides and pesticides, enlargement of fields, removal of landscape features and field margins and the use of heavy machines. In its most extreme form, the remaining agricultural land is virtually sterile with almost no butterflies. In such situations, butterflies can survive only on road verges, in remaining nature reserves and urban areas. Even then butterflies are not safe, as wind‑drifted insecticides kill many larvae on road verges next to sprayed fields and nitrogen deposition fertilises nutrient‑poor meadows (Butterflies typically thrive on nutrient-poor soils). This fertilisation speeds up succession (grass and scrub growth) and leads to the paradox of micro‑climatic cooling in combination with climate warming.

Abandonment of farming might be thought a positive development for butterflies and moths. For a few short years, this is often the case.  The cessation of crop-growing and application of chemicals may see the return of some flowers, native grasses and the associated butterflies. When abandonment occurs in the more remote, less agriculturally productive areas especially on nutrient-poor soils and in steeper, rocky land, a population resurgence often occurs. This is a brief revival because natural succession, the process which sees this land colonised by scrub and trees eliminates grassland habitat and the butterflies that require it.

These problems can be tackled but greater societal awareness and desire to address the challenges is needed. Education will play a vital part in educating increasingly urbanised children on the wonders of the world around them and the world of the broader countryside. For primary level, the current “Heritage for Schools” scheme, a great outlet and learning opportunity for our children should be expanded. At second-level, science programmes at Junior Cycle should include a practical habitat study project where habitat creation and management should be carried out. The Civic, Social and Political Education programme should also have a strong biodiversity element with an action project that involves habitat creation initiatives/study.

At Leaving Certificate, the study of biology involves an ecology element, which typically involves an ecosystem study. The introduction of a  compulsory or optional research project involving an ecosystem study which comprises 20% of the mark for the course may deepen interest and awareness in the workings of our wonderful natural world. Aesthetic appreciation can be deepened through the art syllabus; one element of the art portfolio can be a representation of a butterfly. In order to facilitate these developments, a comprehensive system of in-service training for teachers needs to be instituted. This can be done on dedicated in-service training days and during Croke Park Agreement hours.

Some other ways to tackle the biodiversity crisis will be described in the next post.

The need to recognise the beauty of nature, so vital if we are to recognise the need to protect our world, might be encouraged if we seek out and enjoy the butterflies we have…

The Orange-tip, a grassland butterfly with a stable population across 17 European states, is a beautiful creature, a real delight for any nature lover. Photo J. Harding
The same Orange-tip as above, with wings open. Photo J.Harding



Easter Butterflies

Easter is a time of hope for all. But this year COVID-19 has brought heartbreak to some and isolation and worry to many people, here and across the world. The virus can infect anyone, whether you are a prime minister or a health worker, a child or an elderly person.

The rare gift of sustained good weather has brought butterflies out into the so welcome sunshine. The startlingly clear spring light shines on masses of golden Common Dandelions allowed to bloom this year, a flower greatly needed by our spring bees and butterflies (what a pity Wordsworth eulogised daffodils instead of dandelions in his best-known poem “I wandered Lonely as a Cloud”).

Seeing nature flying free, not locked down and restricted, must be a powerful symbol of hope. Some of our butterflies, such as the Peacock and the Brimstone prepared for winter, a time of hunger and cold. They survived the dark, wet winter as adult butterflies, symbols of resilience.  Now they are fulfilling their destiny, seeking and finding each other in the good times,  and laying the foundations for the next generation to emerge in high summer.

Other butterflies that are in flight now, such as the Speckled Wood, over-wintered inside the pupa. Cocooned in the immobile homes, they too fly free. Nature recognises the right time to move to the next stage in life, reading the signs-increasing daylight is carefully registered so emergence takes place when nectar for the adult and the food needed for their offspring is available. Success depends on timing. They cannot just emerge from the cocoon when there are a few warm days; if they just responded to temperature cues, the Speckled Wood could emerge out of synchronisation with the development of its caterpillar foodplants. Butterflies indicate the benefits of getting the timing right.

Symbols of resilience, hope, timing, freedom, hope and beauty-is it any wonder we love butterflies?

Happy Easter

A male Brimstone, faded after his long winter and ongoing search for a mate, but still healthy, active and beautiful. As is the case for most butterflies, Common Dandelion is a favourite nectar source. J.Harding
A female Peacock basking just after inspecting nettles to determine their suitability for her eggs. Shortly after this was taken, she flew into a ditch to drink water then flew off to continue her search for a breeding site.J.Harding
A male Peacock (sexes look identical) in his alert pose, ready to launch himself after a rival or mate. J.Harding
A male Speckled Wood, freshly emerged, keeps his vigil on a  trackway. Like the male Peacock, the male Speckled Wood is fiercely territorial. J.Harding
Holly Blues mating in a garden in Rathfarnham, County Dublin. Keep a watch in your garden, especially now while we are confined. Photo Michael Gray


Night time in Spring

Spring is a stunning season because the activity is accelerated after a period of dormancy for most of our wild plants and animals. Spring lifts us, especially the frenetic activity of birds and early spring butterflies. As the season develops there is a scent in the air, especially on warm, calm days-the sweet, exciting rather nostalgia-building fragrance of Sweet Vernal Grass is a special experience for the stroller in unspoilt countryside. A delicate scent is emitted by banks of sunny primroses, delicate, subtle but there for anyone determined to experience it.

Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks seem to be everywhere now, flying widely in the countryside and suburbia, searching for nectar, mates and breeding sites. These long-lived butterflies readily visit gardens whose gardeners thoughtfully allow the dandelions to flower. A sparkling galaxy of Lesser Celandine will also attract these butterflies. Holly Blues will occasionally take this nectar too.

But there is another world that occupies the hours of darkness. The night is not day-time’s winter but a time of intense life and action. This is the realm of bats, slugs, owls, newts and other less glamorous but very intriguing animals. While that list sounds like the ingredients of a witch’s cauldron, the night-shift is no less active and beautiful in its own subtle way. If you know of a pond nearby that holds newts, take a torch and bring your child or grandchild along with your torch. The antics of courting and egg-laying newts will amaze and delight. Try the pond during the daylight too-I watched a pair of combative dragonfly nymphs fight over a water louse for a half an hour with no end in prospect by the time I lost sight of their battle.

The world of the night is where most of our Lepidoptera species hold sway. Most of our Lepidoptera species are moths; we see 35 butterfly species in Ireland every year. We have around 1475 moth species! Most of these are nocturnal and some have large populations. Because many fly in the darkest time of the night we can be utterly unaware of the enormity of these populations. Moths conceal themselves so effectively during the day that we can go through habitats with large populations and never know they even exist. There is good reason to stay obscure. Moths are often plump-bodied packets of goodness, greatly appreciated by a range of hungry bats, birds and amphibians.

Spring moths are cryptic in colour-easily blending into the blander tones of dry grass, stone walls, boulders, tree trunks, branches and darker recesses in ivy and bramble. The trees still await leaves, so spring moths cannot sport the vivid brass, iridescence and multi-coloured patterning of their summer cousins.  But subtlety will encourage closer observation. A more focused careful examination is needed to see the beauty in sombre attire. That is today’s challenge. Every day’s challenge is to grow and preserve the wild plants, especially native trees like Grey Willow, Common Hawthorn, oaks and Silver Birch these moth need.

Photos J.Harding

Powdered Quaker
Twin-spotted Quaker.
Common Quaker.
Small Quaker
Hebrew Character


Vladimir Nabokov and Butterflies

Many famous people have loved butterflies but this devotion has often been overlooked. Winston Churchill is one such person.  Churchill was in some ways a very unlikely Lepidopterist. Churchill was a soldier who fought on four continents. He was one of the only British prime ministers to have killed a man in battle ( Johnson 2015). He spent time as a prisoner of war in South Africa, was a journalist, politician, writer and war leader. Yet he found time for butterflies.

He planned to release large numbers of Black-veined Whites in the grounds of his home, Chartwell, Kent to try to reintroduce the species-it disappeared from England in 1922 for a reason or reasons that are unclear but that may be related to habitat change and poor weather.  Churchill’s plan ended in farce when his gardener removed the muslin bags containing the caterpillars from the hawthorn hedges and burned them instead of opening them. Now, thanks to a warming climate, Butterfly Conservation UK are planning to reintroduce the species from Northern France.

Churchill’s interest dated from childhood. When he was six, he wrote to his mother, Lady Jennie Churchill: “I am never at a loss to do anything while I am in the country for I shall be occupied with ‘butterflying’ all day (as I was last year).” This was just as well; his father was very distant (he also died young, at 45) and his mother was busy.

Some people ‘find’ butterflies at a time of great tension in their lives. The Liverpool writer of Irish descent,  Michael McCarthy, writes very movingly in his intriguing 2015 memoir, “The Moth Snowstorm” of how he came to discover butterflies in August 1954, just as Churchill was in his final, and rather decrepit state as prime minister.  Aged just 7, his family was in crisis. His mother, Norah, 40, was committed to an asylum and his father, a seaman, was frequently absent. His aunt Mary sold their Birkenhead house (!) and took the Michael and his very distressed brother, John, then aged 8, to live in Bebington,  a much greener location than their Birkenhead terrace. A nearby Buddleia was covered in butterflies. In the midst of the terrible suffering of his extremely distressed brother and confined mother, Michael gazed each day in wonder at the living jewels whose colours caressed his eyes and heart. Those Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells, whose glorious reds, blacks, maroon, purple, blues, salmon pink, white and orange on the purple Buddleia blooms had the young Michael enthralled. So began a life in love with nature.

In Europe (and later in America) the Russian writer, Vladimir Nabakov 1899-1977 combined his literary work with his study of butterflies. While justly famous for his literary work, especially for the disturbing novel Lolita, Nabakov pursued his scientific work with great diligence. His ideas on butterfly migration have recently been taken more seriously. In 2011 it was confirmed that his 1945 theory that Polyommatus blues (a genus of blue butterflies including Polyommatus icarus, the Common Blue, found in Ireland) had colonised the Americas from Asia in a series of waves across Beringia (the Bering Strait and adjacent parts of Siberia and Alaska) was proved correct.

Dr Naomi Pierce, a co-author of the report (Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World), organized four separate trips to the Andes to collect the blues, and then she and her colleagues at Harvard sequenced the genes of the butterflies, as well as comparing the number of mutations each species had acquired. Their research resulted in the revelation that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to America, as Nabokov had originally hypothesized.  The report can be found here:

Nabokov based his original idea of the origins of the Polyomattus blues in the Americas on morphology, especially on male genitalia. His views, in the words of the report, “were uncannily correct in delineating not only species relationships but also the historical ordering of these five key (colonisation) events in the evolution of New World blues.”

Nabokov also worked as a taxonomist, placing species in genus and families and even describing new species.  Many Lepidopterists regarded Nabokov with some disdain seeing him as a reasonable describer of butterflies but lacking important scientific insights.

In 1944, for example, Nabokov published the first description of the Karner Blue, a rare butterfly that lives in the northeastern United States. Judging from its colour and choice of foodplants, Nabokov came to believe that it was a distinct species. But when scientists began to analyze its genes, they decided it was just part of an existing species, the Melissa Blue Lycaeides melissa.

However, a study published in 2010 ( revealed that Nabokov was right.  The study found that gene flow between the Karner Blue and Melissa Blue is low, and comparable to the gene flow between L. melissa and another species, L. idas. Considering this population-genetic evidence, the study concluded that the Karner Blue is a unique evolutionary lineage that should be recognized as Lycaeides samuelis. This matters greatly because not only does it clarify the taxonomic status of the Karner Blue, it also adds urgency to the need to protect the species. This butterfly has suffered because the butterfly’s only known larval foodplant, Lupinus perennis, (a beautiful member of Fabaceae, the pea family)  which occurs in habitats such as pine barrens and oak savanna are being impacted by fire suppression work.

Perhaps more of Nabokov’s impressive work will now be reassessed and confirmed using next-generation genetic sequencing. The work by the scientists in the two studies mentioned here shows that examination of the wing characters, colouring and genitalia undertaken by Nabokov can be a valid way to assess butterfly origins and taxonomic status.

Nabokov’s devotion to butterflies continued to his last days. As he lay dying in July 1977, he remarked to his son Dimitri that a certain butterfly would soon be on the wing. Vladimir, it seemed,  knew that he would not live to see it. But he left a rich legacy of scientific discovery and knowledge as well as his literary work, a life enjoyed and well-lived.

Polyommatus icarus, the Common Blue. Photo J.Harding.



Warmer weather to tempt butterflies to emerge

Warmer weather forecast for the coming week should see spring butterflies-Speckled Woods, Orange-tips, Green-veined Whites and Holly Blues to take to the warmer, bluer skies.

All of these butterflies will fly along sunny, hedges with native trees and flowers, so a stroll abroad along sunlit hedges bordered by native flora and grasses should be taken. We want to know what you see, where you see it and the weather conditions. So, I will check a lovely sheltered lane within a kilometre of my home tomorrow or when we get the first sunny day. If I see a butterfly, it will be recorded like this and posted on the Records page 2020:

Jesmond Harding (06/04/2020)

Orange-tip 2, Speckled Wood 1 at N 91526 42532, Mulhussey, Co. Meath. Sunny, 14C.

I get my grid reference readings from

Send your record to us at

I gave a talk to a very keen gardening group about enhancing their gardens for butterflies. When I showed a photograph of a male Orange-tip, their enthusiasm soared. All of the gardeners said that they had never seen one. But the countryside on their doorstep was awash with suitable habitat. It will amaze you-but you need to go out and look for him. Once you see one Orange-tip, you will always remember what he looks like.

This gorgeous butterfly rarely sits still but I guarantee that you will be impressed!

Please do observe physical distancing when outside. Take care.

Orange-tip on the Dandelion, a favourite nectar plant.©J.Harding.
The Orange-tip underside, on Dandelion. ©J.Harding.


Butterfly of the Year

In the following article, Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s Pat Bell looks back at his butterfly experiences over the past few years. These experiences can stay with us, adding great character to our memories, especially now while we have so much time to reflect.

I got the idea of picking a Butterfly of the Year a few years ago when reading Matthew Oates’s ‘In Pursuit of Butterflies’. His criterion is “the butterfly species by which the individual year is best remembered”. I find that in my case for some years this is a single sighting, event or place that is embedded in my memory while for other years it might be simply down to numbers. So here goes …


It was September 2009 and I was surrounded by Painted Lady butterflies. They were rising up from a large patch of thistles growing on the banks of the River Rye at Louisa Bridge, Leixlip, Co Kildare. I had seen them already that summer both in my garden for the first time and in Altamont Gardens in Carlow. However, this was on a different scale and a unique experience. In hindsight, we now know that 2009 was an exceptional Painted Lady year in Ireland and most of Western Europe.

Painted Lady 2009.


In 2010 I recorded the Holly Blue in my garden for the first time. I don’t know if I had missed it before but it is a species that fluctuates due to parasitism and it used to be mainly a butterfly of hedgerows but has been steadily expanding into gardens. I look forward every year now to the first glimpse of it and then to its second generation. I have seen it laying on holly blossom in my garden but it was high up and I couldn’t spot the eggs afterwards.

Holly Blue 2010.


I started recording on the Royal Canal near my house for the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme in 2011. My transect is the lovely stretch of canal from the harbour in Maynooth to Pike Bridge at the main entrance to Carton House. To my great surprise and joy, the most abundant species was the Common Blue. Sadly, this colony virtually disappeared in subsequent years, barely hanging on until making a big recovery in 2018 which it maintained, although not at the same level, in 2019.

Common Blue 2011.


The Small Tortoiseshell was undoubtedly the star turn of 2012 and I wrote about this in my post of 24th March ( In mid-September I had as many as 50 individuals on my autumn flowering buddleia which was some sight. Winner alright.

Small Tortoiseshell 2012.


In 2013 it was a numbers game, specifically the Small White. It came out on top in all my yearly totals for garden, Royal Canal transect and especially my Stacumny transect with more than 300. These latter ones were especially prolific on the allotment section of that transect where of course there were plenty of their cabbage family larval food plants.

Small White 2013


For many years I had enjoyed watching Red Admirals on my fig tree in late summer and early autumn. Overripe figs are especially soft and fleshy and I think it may be wasps that make the initial breakthrough. I also had a glut of plums in 2014 and lots of windfalls which I started putting out on the garden table and these proved to be a big hit with the Red Admirals and great entertainment for me.  A taste of this can be seen here:

Red Admiral 2014.


In early 2015 while recovering from an operation I did a bit of a desktop study tracking the expansion of the Comma out of its original Wexford stronghold. Andrew and Brian Power had done some great work in Carlow and along with Jesmond we wrote an item on this in Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s 2015 annual report. I started walking the Barrow north of Maganey Bridge that summer and was rewarded in August with the first recorded sighting of a Comma in Kildare – I’m claiming it anyway!

Comma 2015


In the autumn of 2012 lots of Large White caterpillars were making their way to our allotment shed in Stacumny to pupate. However, they were virtually all parasitised and it was a grotesque sight to see these parasites emerging from caterpillars and pupae. This was happening everywhere apparently and led to a big collapse in their numbers so it gave me great pleasure to see a major recovery in all my counts in 2016. This is a very striking butterfly which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Large White 2016


I experimented with a mark and release project with the Red Admirals in my garden in 2017. By chance, it happened to be a big year for them and I was kept very busy. I caught, numbered and released a total of 95 individuals which was more than I had expected but I was even more surprised that I recaught only two. There is a more detailed report on this in Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s 2017 annual report. (

Red Admiral 2017


I rescued a colony of newly hatched Peacock larvae from a clump of nettles that was about to be cut on the allotment in mid-June 2017 and relocated them to the nettles in my garden. They thrived here and provided me with many hours of enjoyable close-up observations. The reward was record numbers of adult Peacocks in my garden in 2018 although it seems to have been a good year for them everywhere.

Peacock 2018


The Comma had continued to expand its range, albeit intermittently, in the intervening years. Back in 2015, I had calculated its expansion rate to be an average of 10km per year at which rate it would be still a few years before they reached Maynooth. So I could hardly believe my eyes when two turned up in my garden at the end of August 2019 and hung around for a few weeks. One was quite territorial and they loved the fruit I put out for them (and the Red Admirals) more so than flowers. Oh yes, and I had amazing numbers of Painted Ladies as well – back to where we started!

Comma 2019


This story waits to be experienced and written.

Perhaps you have a special reason to recall a year for its butterflies or have a special memory where a butterfly played a special part. Why not let us know?  Our Facebook page is waiting!

Pat Bell, April 2020



Cocooning is staying inside one’s home, insulated from perceived danger, instead of going out.

The fear and frustration being felt across the world by restrictions imposed to protect public health are extreme for many of us. Who doesn’t enjoy the freedom to gulp down draughts of fresh spring air, to enjoy physical movement, to hear the birds sing, bees hum and enjoy the visual accompaniments of the season?

Perhaps most accept the strictures are necessary however much we detest these limits. There is, of course, the prospect of freedom in the future, whenever that will be. That prospect will motivate some; just as lent ends and Easter arrives, just as winter is followed by spring, just as the night is succeeded by dawn, we will move away from this unwelcome, worrying and unhappy time.

Perhaps we should look at this enforced confinement as a time of growth, unseen, undetected but no less profound for that. We might see it as a time of delay needed for growth. We might see it as an interruption. In fact, we have examples of all three situations in the world of butterflies.

Growth Unseen

The clearest example of concealed development lies within the pupa. The ancient Greeks thought of the pupa as a shroud but the insect is undergoing dramatic and profound growth. Some of the development that transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly actually happens in the final stage of the larva but it is within the pupa that the powerful morphological alterations occur. Sometimes the pupa does not last long. It can last less than a week in some species in good weather but may last several months when the pupa is the over-wintering stage. Take an Orange-tip caterpillar that pupated in June-its pupa might last a full year or even two, if it over-winters twice, which can happen in this species-a mechanism (pupal diapause) to protect the species against a bad year.

The pupa is not pretty. It is not meant to be. It is meant to conceal the developing butterfly. To look at a pupa is, quite often to look at a wrinkled, aged-looking shrivelled being, a decayed leaf, a withered dropping, a fragment of bark. Yet when ready, the pupa hatches delivering what in many cases appears to be the purposeless splendour of a ravishing confection. A dazzling master of flight succeeds stillness and confinement.

The pupa, apparently lifeless, is where metamorphosis takes place. © J.Harding
Common Swallowtail, Qala, Gozo, an iconic, powerful and elegant butterfly.© J.Harding


Sometimes an intervention occurs that interrupts our lives. In southern Europe, extreme summer heat makes life extremely difficult for some adult butterflies. Some can migrate and resume their lives elsewhere-the Painted Lady and Red Admiral can use this strategy. But not everyone has the flight muscles for this task.

One such butterfly is the Meadow Brown butterfly, which occurs throughout Europe, including Ireland. In the southern coastal regions of the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean Islands, it can get dangerously hot.  Foodplants are not in good condition for egg-laying and even if they are, venturing out in the heat can easily kill. Avoiding the heat is not easy for a butterfly that must remain active. The response of the Meadow Brown (and other species) is known as aestivation. It rests in the deepest shade it can find, usually in dense scrub or in woodland, waiting for summer’s heat to pass. During a period of extreme heat, the Meadow Brown will slip out for a quick sip of nectar in the morning but quickly returns to the shade.

This female Meadow Brown, above Calypso’s Cave on the island of Gozo, has just left shade to feed-it quickly retreated into dense shrubbery.© J.Harding


Sometimes there are circumstances when plans must be postponed.  Some species have the ability to enter a state known as diapause. This phenomenon can occur in all life stages; the stage in which it occurs is determined according to the species. Diapause helps the species deal with adverse conditions that will occur with the less suitable conditions that will take place with seasonal changes.  Diapause is controlled by brain hormones and is usually triggered by signals in the environment that foreshadow unfavourable conditions. Once diapause has begun, metabolic activity is suppressed even if conditions favourable for development continue. This period of diapause is characterised by altered or reduced behavioural activity. Diapause in the egg, larva and the pupa confers increased resistance to the dangers of extreme winter weather.

The Small Copper may produce a third generation in some autumns but under cooler temperatures and falling sunlight levels in dull, cloudy conditions in late summer and early autumn, the larvae enter a diapause state. They cease feeding, change colour and hide deep in vegetation until the diapause stage is terminated in spring.

This Small Copper caterpillar from County Meath is feeding on Common Sorrel but it is about to enter diapause. The pink marking disappears over the winter. J.Harding

However, in spring when conditions improve, diapause is terminated, larvae resume their pre-diapause colour and feed eagerly. In late spring and early summer, the adults fly. As you can see from the photo below, it’s worth waiting for.

A Small Copper, County Meath © J.Harding.

There may be different reasons for diapause occurring in the adult butterfly. The Brimstone butterflies hatch from their pupae in summer but they do not breed during the year of their birth but delay reproduction until the following spring when the larval foodplant is in the right condition.

As we can see, nature has its reasons for putting activity on hold. Nature has much to teach us. We have much to learn. With the excitement that arises from discovery, I hope there will always be more to learn.