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 (https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/2020/03/24/small-tortoiseshell-butterfly-in-the-garden-an-analysis-by-pat-bell/). 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07XV2FVNSjk

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. (https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/butterfly-conservation-ireland-annual-report-2017/)

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