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.


Moth Morning and Butterfly Walk Event Report 26 June 2018

The events were attended by Butterfly Conservation Ireland and Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club. The moth morning led by Philip Strickland was held at Lullymore Heritage Park followed by the butterfly walk led by Jesmond Harding which took place in Lullymore West and Lullybeg.

The previous night was dry, calm and warm, a perfect combination for moths. The five traps held good catches, especially the larger Robinson traps. The full species list is awaited, but highlights include Gold Swift, Goat Moth, Northern Eggar,  Pebble Hook-tip, Grass Emerald, Large Emerald, Birch Mocha, Lilac Beauty, Barred Red, Waved Carpet (a scarce species), Northern Spinach, Eyed Hawk-moth, Poplar Hawk-moth, Elephant Hawk-moth, Beautiful Snout, Scarce Silver Y and Burnished Brass.

A great many photographs were taken by field club members who were very interested by the enormous range of the moths’ colours, patterns and shapes. Moth study is fascinating, even if one never gets beyond enjoying their physical appearance, especially the painstaking intricacies of their patterns.

The moths were released after the photos and their day-flying relatives were examined. A lovely female Meadow Brown showing delightfully intense orange fore-wing markings posed very nicely for the photographers. Often seen as a less glamorous species, this was certainly an arresting beauty. Ringlets bobbed along the wayside grasses following us as we made a stroll to the rich grasslands at Lullymore. Marsh Fritillary eggs were seen on the underside of a large leaf of the food plant, Devil’s-bit Scabious. These have turned purple-brown, having been laid about a week ago. Their parents are no longer alive, but have left us with the next generation in egg form.

Common Blues fluttered their shining, tinfoil blue wings above still yellow Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil flowers, while a myriad of marauding dragonflies made their direct linear flights and hairpin-bend turns. One snatched a Birch Mocha which it dispatched immediately. The species seen included Four-spotted Chaser, Black-tailed Skimmer, Brown Hawker and a single male Emperor.

Later, Dark Green Fritillaries dashed across our path and vanished as swiftly. These restless, shining orange jewels leave one breathless at their glowing colour and exhilarating movement. It is a pity, though, that they rarely allow a close view.

Near the end of the track connecting Lullymore and Lullybeg, where the two buckthorn trees grow together, a faded Brimstone arrived, still laying her eggs. We netted her for a close view to find her wings perfectly in order, after an adult life-span of over ten months. She was released and resumed her egg laying almost immediately.

There was one mystery. A large, dark butterfly was observed, fluttering around the tops of birch trees. If seen in Europe, it might be expected to reveal a Camberwell Beauty or Purple Emperor. But it did not descend, and the mystery of its identity remains.

A special thanks to the large number who attended and showed great enthusiasm for nature’s wonders. It was a lovely experience for all.

Large Emerald.©J.Harding.
Eyed Hawk-moth.©J.Harding.
Barred Red.©J.Harding.
Meadow Brown.©J. Harding
Argyresthia brockeella ©J. Harding

Lullybeg Reserve Sees its first Dark Green Fritillary Record of 2018

Dark Green Fritillary, Lullybeg Reserve.©J.Harding

On the morning of June 22nd 2018 this lovely male Dark Green Fritillary  emerged from its chrysalis low down in the vegetation on Lullybeg’s Crabtree Reserve. The butterfly is named for the green suffusion on the underside of the hind-wing.  This stunning butterfly is a very powerful flyer, even in areas exposed to strong winds.  Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to approach, especially in hot weather.

The status of the Dark Green Fritillary on the Red List of Irish Butterflies 2010 is vulnerable because of a population reduction that is projected or suspected to be met in the future (up to a maximum of 100 years) based on a decline in the area of occupancy, extent of occurrence and or habitat quality. The key threats are loss of coastal habitats to erosion and golf links and a reduction in quality of remaining habitats which are suffering from the encroachment of invasive species, because these areas are no longer grazed and are left undisturbed. The encroachment of scrub on limestone, heaths and bogs is a threat to it on these habitats, as is tree planting (usually of conifers) on cutaway and cutover bogs. Destruction of limestone pavement and high quality calcareous grassland are sinister threats to this dynamic and handsome butterfly.

The species was formerly common on the cutover bog in Lullybeg. Sadly, about ten years ago it became very scarce and almost disappeared from the Lullybeg area. Steps were taken to make the habitat suitable for this magnificent species. Common Dog-violet is the main larval host-plant. The plant was largely absent from the open grassland on the reserve and the violets that exist on the reserve had become shaded by developing scrub and woodland.  Heavy shade means that the violets are unsuitable for the larva. To create conditions  suitable for the species, violets were planted in clumps on the open grassland. Invasive scrub with violets growing underneath was cut back manually or removed with Bord na Móna’s assistance using heavy machinery. This brought the violets back into the light. The grasses returned which provides cover and basking areas for the larva. The well developed woodland areas with violets within them were left undisturbed as this habitat is used for breeding by the Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly. The Silver-washed Fritillary also uses Common Dog-violet as the larval host-plant but its larva requires some shade for it to develop. This approach highlights the need to manage a site sensitively; actions taken to benefit a species should not damage or remove habitat for another, unless an urgent priority exists in favour of a highly endangered species. Retention and maintenance of a range of habitats is best practice especially when a large site is available for nature conservation.

The next step was to reintroduce the butterfly. A  small number of adult butterflies were obtained from a large population and these were released into the habitat in 2016. Breeding was suspected in  June 2017 when a female was observed on a patch of violets.

This deep orange butterfly perched on fresh green vegetation is a glorious sight on a sunny June morning, and it is heartening to see its return. Hard toil is rewarded!

June’s Day Flying Moths

Although most of our moths are night flyers, including some of our most spectacular species such as the sumptuous Elephant Hawk-moth there are some beautiful species flying now.

Here are five eye-catching day flyers. All five feed on flower nectar so you can obtain a close view of the animal. All five live in flower rich habitats  and can be seen in bright sunshine.

All images copyright J.Harding.

Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth

The Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth is a bee mimic and breeds on Devil’-bit Scabious. It flies in May and June. It hovers as it sups nectar from Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Ragged Robin and other flowers. It buzzes like a bee too but does not sting! It is often found on the same sites as the Marsh Fritillary. The lovely green and purple larvae feed singly on the host-plant and are seen from June to August.

Forester Moth

This little moth is often initially seen as a shimmer of gleaming, iridescent green but it soon settles,  usually to feed. The larvae feed on Common Sorrel but despite the abundance of the plant this moth is uncommon but widely distributed. It is sometimes seen in small numbers in a small area of high quality habitat but I usually see just a single individual.  The Small Copper may also be found in the same habitats.

Cinnabar Moth

A highly distinctive moth both in the larval and adult states. Larvae feed communally on Groundsel and Common Ragwort, their yellow and black bands unmistakeable. Their bodies contain a cyanide compound derived from the host-plant and are avoided by birds. The moth is often abundant on vegetated sand dunes, quarries and weedy brownfield sites. While mainly a nocturnal moth, it frequently flies in the day. Its bright deep pink undersides are delightful to see in bright light, and children love their colours. However, handling it is not advised due to its toxicity.

Six-spot Burnet Moth

The Six-spot Burnet is a lovely moth that can be found in vast numbers on flower rich sand dunes where its larval host-plant, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil is abundant. In some areas there may be thousands of these moths. They fly throughout the summer.

Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet Moth.

The Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet looks similar to the more common Six-spot Burnet and occur together on some inland sites but the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet is much less common.  It was believed to be very rare but many populations have been found in the past five years, including on Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s Lullybeg Reserve. It looks slightly smaller than the Six-spot Burnet and the larvae feed on Meadow Vetchling. It seems to prefer moister habitats and  flies in June and July. It visits flowers and flies in sunshine. The moth that  occurs in Ireland is subspecies insularis.

We like to hear of moth records too, so please email your sightings to us, giving us the details as described under the Records Tab.



What to see in June

In Ireland June is the first month of summer, according to meteorologists. It is the month with the longest days,  the best plant growth, the month of orchids and the peak month for butterfly species. Only a handful of butterflies do not fly in June. These are the  Essex Skipper, Silver-washed Fritillary, Brown Hairstreak,  Purple Hairstreak, Grayling and Hedge Brown. Every other species is on the wing and for some this month is their peak flight time.

The species that are especially notable just now are the  Wood White, Green Hairstreak, Small Blue, Marsh Fritillary and Large Heath.

The Wood White, a rarity headquartered in The Burren in Counties Clare and Galway is a delicate-looking white butterfly, identical in appearance to its close relative, the Cryptic Wood White. Both are now very busy laying their eggs. The butterfly may be seen in the hazel scrub in The Burren, fluttering delicately as it searches painstakingly for the correct vetches growing in the correct positions. Last Monday I watched a female take 20 minutes to find a vetch on which to lay a single egg. When it fluttered very low it was eyed eagerly by a young frog. No wonder the Wood White is so rare! Below is a photograph of a male on Ragged Robin.

The Green Hairstreak is one of our smallest and most easily overlooked yet beautiful butterfly, sporting in bright light a shining green reminiscent of a bejeweled rain forest butterfly. It is a species of damp scrub, typically at the edge of bogs where it feeds mainly, I suspect, on Bilberry. It does have several other larval food plants but Bilberry patches in sheltered areas are the most reliable places to look for it.

Both sexes are fond of nectar, especially of the nectar of Bush Vetch. Agitate a tuft of flowering vetches, stand back and watch. A shimmer of green and dark brown (the upper surfaces are brown but the butterfly always rests with closed wings, which are green) are vaguely glimpsed while the butterfly is airborne. When settled, approach carefully for a good view. As you see from the photograph, seeing it up close is a treat.

The Small Blue is described well by its adjective but poorly by its  noun. It is certainly small, but is not blue. The male only has a dusting of blue scaling near the base of the upper surfaces of the wings,  the iridescence giving the butterfly a bluer appearance in flight than the settled insect has. The species is endangered and has only one food plant. The food plant occurs only on calcareous soils. It cannot withstand heavy grazing by any animal or any sheep grazing and it cannot withstand encroachment by taller vegetation. Strimming the habitat in June or July will wipe out the butterfly which feeds on the flowers only. This species is very easy to miss, but is a charming butterfly, always busy with living.

By contrast, the Marsh Fritillary is lazy. The female is especially relaxed, and perches for long periods on a leaf in the grassland, apparently doing nothing. The males are much more active, zig-zagging over the grassland habitat but even the male will sit still, especially in the mornings when he basks to warm up. The Marsh Fritillary is a lovely butterfly and in the remarkable variety of its colouring, patterning and size, one of the most interesting, with no two ever alike. The Marsh Fritillary holds the distinction of being the only legally protected species of insect in Ireland, enjoying the protection of the Habitats’ Directive 1992. This means that certain areas have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation to protect it. It is a real delight to see a fresh individual and given the fact that it is very rare in many parts of Ireland, one to keep an eye on. Its habitat must be maintained if it is to continue to survive.

The Large Heath will not win any design awards. It is one of our dowdier butterflies, with some specimens looking fairly grey on the wing but it is dying out with the annihilation of its wet bog habitat. One of our most sensitive butterflies, it is in trouble here and in Europe. Because very few people tramp across the tricky ground of wet bogs, it is rarely recorded but it’s out now, so take a look at him while you still can. Think of this bog butterfly’s needs the next time you’re about to throw turf on the fire or garden using peat.

A final and really delightful butterfly is the Small Copper, aptly named. Rarely seen in number, it is a special experience to see a pristine example, like the females below, feeding on a buttercup.

Enjoy the photographs, but get out in good habitats and look for the real thing!

All photographs are © copyright J. Harding.

Wood White on Ragged Robin.
Green Hairstreak female on Bush Vetch.
Small Blue male.
Marsh Fritillary male.
Large Heath male on bog habitat, its only home.
Small Copper female.




Lullymore West and Lullybeg Reserve Event Report

A breezy, mild day with occasional sunny spells gave the weather context for our annual outing to the wonderfully rich habitats in the wilds of Lullymore and Lullybeg.

One of the great pluses of the area is the that there is no long trek to locate the areas treasures, no difficult terrain to tackle, no dull areas to traverse to reach the good spots. The entire area from the parking point to the western limits of Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve offers abunance to the wildlife lover.

Right beside our parking point a rarity was pointed out by Philip Strickland, our moth specialist. A lovely White-pinion Spotted moth, perched serenely on a birch leaf,  its snowy white standing out sharply on dark green. There are no other midland records for this moth!  You can see photographs of it on our Facebook page.

Cryptic Wood Whites fluttered  gently along the track ahead, looking delicate and ethereal. This dainty sylph floats about the solid world of tangled grasses and scrub, searching almost abstractedly for a mate, nectar or a place to perch or lay an egg.

A sharp contrast to the dreamlike sensation evoked by the ghostly wood whites is the hyperactivity of the Dingy Skippers and Burnet Companions. These don’t stop when the sun is out,buzzing excitedly around inky milkwort and cheery yellow bird’s-foot trefoil, chasing and supping nectar.  Mating was observed; a quiescent female folded her wings and allowed joining. Earlier, another disdainful female raised her abdomen towards an amorous male in the classic rejection posture. The ever-interesting Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth was surging across the grassland, while a more ponderous female was observed inspecting the vegetation for egg-sites. This bumble-bee mimic  not only imitates a bee’s appearance, it makes a loud buzzing sound too.

Brimstones are still about too, but these showy butterflies are currently being gobbled by Hairy Hawker dragonflies which assassinated five on the track alone! Beautiful dragonflies they are, but also ferocious killers. Peacocks are still extant, and apparently not  as vulnerable.

The star of the show was the Marsh Fritillary, just beginning to fly at Lullymore and Lullybeg. Only males were seen, all pristine. There will, given sunshine, be many more in the weeks again, but no two look alike, adding endless intrigue to the study of this iconic butterfly.

Thanks to everyone who joined us. It was great to have your company, and share the beautiful butterflies of Kildare’s best butterfly site.

More photos cab be seen on our Facebook page.

To see an enlarged view of these images, open in a new tab and click on the + symbol.

Marsh Fritillary.©J.Harding



Butterflies Seen in 2018

After a long, dark winter and wet, cold spring there has been some nice activity over the past two weeks. The Orange-tip has finally broken its silence  and is tremulously flashing his fresh orange painted forewings across the countryside canvas. He took his time, held back by forbidding cold. He is a welcome sight.

The humbler, dainty Green-veined White is now occupying the same wood clearings,  tree-lines, hedge-banks and wetlands as the Orange-tip. The two species often use different parts of the same food plant, Cuckoo-flower to avoid dangerous competition. The Small White has been sighted too but the second generation in summer is when the highest numbers are seen.

The Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone and Comma were first out. These over-winter as fully developed adults so have a head-start on everyone else. They all have the crucial advantage of longevity so can wait for their larval food plants to be ready. The Brimstone, for example, waits around two weeks after mating to lay her eggs and she will continue to lay until well into June or even early July.

Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies are migrants and can appear at almost any time of the year. Small numbers are recorded so far. The bigger numbers usually begin in summer.

The lovely Holly Blue is out in sunny, sheltered areas from Donegal to Dublin. The main  spring flight is usually in May but March records occur in early warm springs, but not this year. The tiny  Green Hairstreak has been sighted in out of the way places such as bog edges and wet heaths beloved of this beautiful creature.

Finally, the Speckled Wood has emerged but in very small numbers so far. A fiercely territorial male will beat off any other male who tries to muscle in on his warm, sunny patch of hedgerow or wood edge. Battles involving tight spirals are often seen on country roads from April to October.

In May look for Wall Brown, Dingy Skipper, Large White, Cryptic Wood White, Common Blue and Marsh Fritillary. In the Burren, look for our greatest rarities, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Wood White. These two species will fly together, in herb-rich areas of open scrub. And remember to send in your records to us by email to conservation.butterfly@gmail.com. See Records tab first!

This female Brimstone has just woken after a long winter.©J.Harding.


Female Brimstone fluttering around Alder Buckthorn, the larval food plant.©J.Harding.
Orange-tip on dandelion, a favorite nectar plant.©J.Harding.
Peacock basking on warm vegetation. His livery is fading, but still elegant.©J.Harding.
Green-veined White showing veins picked out with black scales. It is the only member of the whites in Ireland with this pattern.©J.Harding.

Lift-off at Last

Today was not an impressive opening to the butterfly season at Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s  reserve  at Lullybeg, County Kildare but at least butterflies were finally sighted.

The last butterfly sightings  at Lullybeg before today, 24 March 2018, was of  six species: Brimstone, Green-veined White, Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Speckled Wood, all recorded on 30 September, 2017, nearly six months and 174 days ago! The lateness of the season is also clear from the records on this website. Up to the 23 March 2017, 34 butterflies were recorded on the Butterfly Conservation Ireland Records page. Up to 23 March 2018, only three butterflies were recorded.

That underlines how long winter lasts in Ireland, and  in particular how long the winter of 2017-2018 has been.  And if the forecast for next week is correct, winter will make another attack, on us, but not as severe as  earlier in March.

Twelve Celsius with sunshine is usually the temperature that allows flight, but today 11 Celsius was sufficient, with butterflies buoyed by extremely calm conditions and bright sunlight. Lullybeg’s first butterfly of 2018, and  also my first sighting was a Peacock that  glided rather feebly, wings fully expanded, across my path and a stream to perch on a great bleached ball of moor-grass to warm itself.  Soon afterwards, in a clearing, a spectacular male Brimstone, an almost luminous daffodil yellow, cheerfully fluttering around the wood edges, already searching for a mate. His golden gleam promised a end to the misery of winter, and here’s hoping that promise is kept.

Lullybeg’s Marsh Fritillary caterpillars were busy feeding and basking in the sunshine.. Some had reached the fifth instar stage but most were still in the fourth instar, the stage in which they spend the coldest months of the year. They still look small for late March but hopefully better days for feeding are close at hand.

Wherever you live, now is the time to get outside and look for signs of spring. At this time of year, butterflies are usually found very close to cover, in warm, sheltered sunny situations such as the south side of a hedge, along lanes, in woodland clearings, along wood edges and tracks though woodland especially tracks running from east to west.

Don’t forget to send us your sightings. We’d love to see how our butterflies are faring after such a long winter. Email sightings to us at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com. Tell us:

your name, date of sighting, species, life stage and number seen, six figure grid reference and location name. Details of the conditions and temperature are also welcome. We will publish your sighting on our records page, which you can find on this website.

Enjoy spring, and make butterflies part of your spring walk.

All images ©J.Harding.

This Brimstone was the last butterfly seen at Lullybeg, on 30 September 2017.
This Peacock seen on 24 March 2018 is the first butterfly seen at Lullybeg since last September…a long winter intervened!
Early Tooth-striped Moth, Lullybeg Reserve.
Fourth instar Marsh Fritillary larvae on Lullybeg Reserve.These larvae are close to moulting. They will then reach the fifth instar stage, the second last instar before pupation.
Coltsfoot flowers are as yet the only nectar source in Lullybeg. The Grey Willow flowers should be out soon, offering hungry insects a good energy source.


Let it Bee

The snow and ice are still melting and spring is attempting to make itself felt.  Warmth, when it comes, will awaken our insects, our bees, moths and butterflies. Their first priority is to find food; after all, many of our insects have fasted for six months and need to recover diminished body weight to build reserves for activity, such as flight, mate-seeking and breeding.

One of the great challenges faced by nectar and pollen dependent insects is a simple but critical one of a lack of food. If the grassy hedge-bank in which a bumblebee hibernated is cut severely, the Primroses, Cowslips and Common Dandelions on it will be killed or be so reduced that flowering does not take place as it should. Worse still, some flowery verges, hedge banks and lawns are sprayed to kill ‘weeds’. A bland green desert replaces colour, and the endless Saturday drone of lawn mowers and the snarl of strimmers replace the hum of bees shouldering their way through the leafy vegetation.

Happily, there is action being undertaken and lots we can do ourselves.

The National Biodiversity Data Centre has, since 2015, been involved in the National Pollinator Plan which describes actions that can be undertaken by me and you, by public bodies such as county councils and community groups, such as Tidy Towns to enhance the landscape for our flower feeders. Please click on this link and take on at least one action suggested.:


If you are encouraged by rising daylight to pop to the local garden centre to brighten up the garden, look for plants that are good for insects. Not all very attractive flowers are valuable. Some are almost useless. Begonias, many roses, gladioli, daffodils contain little or no pollen or nectar. As far as helping bees and butterflies is concerned, these plants might as well be plastic ornaments.

Here are some suggestions. Herbs such as mint, Wild Marjoram, often called oregano, borage and thyme carry lots of nectar. Lavenders are good too. Primrose, by which I mean the native Primula vulgaris will be welcome, as will the native Irish Cowslip, Primula veris.  Hebes, small to medium-sized evergreen shrubs produce lots of nectar too, and when planted in warmer coastal areas, these plants bloom in winter and sustain insects that wake up on mild days. There is evidence that the hebes grown by gardeners on Howth Head is helping Red Admiral butterflies, which usually leave our shores in autumn for sunny climes further south to remain there throughout the winter.

For mid-summer, there are buddleias which are medium-sized shrubs that like sunny, dry conditions. Bees and butterflies are irresistibly drawn to these shrubs, and you will have weeks of pleasure observing their antics. Verbena bonariensis is a tall, willowy flower that bears purple flowers is a great draw too, and this will provide nectar into September. Ice Plant, a small succulent plant, flowers in September and if in a sunny sheltered spot, be ready for crowds of bees and butterflies.

I prefer the native Irish flowers. The flowers of wild willow shrubs are a big favourite for bees, moths and butterflies. I already mentioned Cowslips and Primroses, but the Common Dandelion trumps these. I cannot think of any butterfly that rejects this plant and when the seeds are ready, Goldfinches will be fed. Common Hawthorn blossom in May is a lovely sight and also a great nectar source. Wild roses, like Dog-rose, Rosa canina, is good too. Honeysuckle is terrific for bees and moths, and its fragrance on a June night is an essential summer scent. Two final winners; Common Knapweed, Centurea nigra and Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis will between them, feed our bees, butterflies and moths from June to October.

A couple of further tips. Do not mow your lawn too tight and cut it every six weeks from April to October to allow Red Clover, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil to fatten our insects. These flowers bring crimson and gold to your lawn too, cheering the place up! And to go all the way, sow a wildflower meadow consisting of these flowers, along with Common Knapweed and Devil’s-bit Scabious and leave uncut from May to September, depending on the warmth of the season-delay mowing/strimming longer in cool years. Cut on a high setting. Remove cuttings to keep the soil suitable to grow your wildflowers the following year.

Never use sprays.

Relax, and enjoy sharing your garden with nature. By taking the steps described here and in the video, you will be enhancing the survival chances of our flowering plants, insects and broader biodiversity as well as increasing the value of your home and garden for your own well-being. People’s well-being is improved by contact with high levels of biodiversity. Make your garden a haven for you, your loved ones, and the creatures who would share it with us, if we gave them what they need.

Enjoy spring!

All photos ©J.Harding.

Clouded Yellow butterfly which feeds and breeds on Red Clover.
Red Admiral on Buddleia davidii.
Devil’s-bit Scabious, flowers from August to October.
Shrill Carder Bee on Common Knapweed. This bee is now rare, confined to the best remaining flower-rich habitats.
Ashy Miner Bee on Common Dandelion. This solitary bee nests in bare soil banks.




Butterfly Impacts from Extreme Climatic Events (ECEs)

An earlier post looked at the effect of extreme climatic events on butterflies but this topic is timely given the current heavy snow.

A study published in 2017, Sensitivity of UK butterflies to local climatic extremes: which life stages are most at risk? examined the impact of ECEs on the resident UK butterfly species (n = 41) over a 37-year period. The study investigated the sensitivity of butterflies to four extremes (drought, extreme precipitation, extreme heat and extreme cold), identified at the site level, across each species’ life stages. Variations in the vulnerability of butterflies at the site level were also compared based on three life-history traits (voltinism, (how many broods a species will produce in a year), habitat requirement and range.

This is the first study to examine the effects of ECEs at the site level across all life stages of a butterfly, identifying sensitive life stages and unravelling the role life-history traits play in species sensitivity to ECEs.

Butterfly population changes were found to be primarily driven by temperature extremes. Extreme heat was detrimental during overwintering periods and beneficial during adult periods and extreme cold had opposite impacts on both of these life stages. Previously undocumented detrimental effects were identified for extreme precipitation during the pupal life stage for univoltine species. Generalists (widely distributed butterflies that use a range of habitats, such as the Small White) were found to have significantly more negative associations with ECEs than specialists (local species confined to  specific habitats, such as the Small Blue).

With future projections of warmer, wetter winters and more severe weather events, UK (and probably Irish) butterflies could come under severe pressure given the findings of this study.

What does this mean for our butterflies given the cold winter and heavy snow?

Extreme cold in winter has a beneficial effect on butterflies but cold weather during adult flight period in spring and summer is very negative. Extreme heat in winter, expressed as very mild weather in Ireland when we are likely to see Small Tortoiseshells on the wing during January, is very negative. Certainly, the butterfly will be on the wing at a time when its adult food and larval food is unavailable. Paul Waring in his excellent Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain states that the large decline in the Garden Tiger moth population may be due to mild, wet Januarys followed by colder weather in February. The Garden Tiger overwinters as a larva which may become active during mild January conditions when food-plant quality may be poor. Feeding requires heat for digestion, and sudden onset of cold weather may affect the animal’s digestive processes and damage the food-plant leaving it vulnerable to starvation. The report also considered that extreme warmth in winter made larvae more susceptible to disease and fungal infections, but the report believes that causing the species, whether over-wintering as an adult or larva to become active before the food is available is a more likely cause of decline.

It is interesting that habitat specialists are at less risk (but are still negatively affected) from extreme climatic events. Factors that may contribute to this reduced impact may be protection given to them by their habitats, the fact that all but one (the Wood White) of our habitat specialists are single-brooded. Indeed, the report found that drought had a much more negative impact on multi-brooded species than on single-brooded species. Yet this does not apply to all life-stages; drought during the egg-stage was noted as a driver of population increase. Furthermore, the response to drought across the species studied was not as uniform as the response to the other extremes. However, there is no doubt that ECEs affect specialists; extreme cold in May and flooding arising from unseasonably heavy rain has eliminated Marsh Fritillary colonies.

Interestingly, the report, when considering why ECEs have a greater effect on generalists than specialists makes the hypothesis that generalist species are more vulnerable as they are filling their climatic niche, and hence, many populations within the species range may be situated on the climatic range edge and be more vulnerable to increased climate inconsistency outside of their comfort zone. In contrast, specialist species are confined to particular host plants which may not common across the specialist species’ climatic niche; hence, those specialist species are not filling their climatic niche and are effectively in or close to their core range and are not subjected to ECEs that are outside their ability to adapt and cope. It is also possible that specialist species are being protected by their habitats where they have been able to survive.

Finally, the report, while careful not to be too definitive, concludes with some important findings. Butterflies (especially single-brooded species) could benefit from warmer, drier summers associated with climate change but milder, wetter winters would damage populations. A key finding is to make sure that habitats do not become fragmented, especially for specialists, and that habitat management should look to protect species from extreme warmth in winter-not a problem for us in 2018!

Peacock on snow. This was disturbed from a wooded area and was returned to over-wintering. ©J.Harding.
Down which road does the future of our butterflies lie? ©J.Harding.