Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Butterflies

Red Admiral

Red Admiral (Photo: Public Domain)

The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is often the last butterfly to be seen flying in the UK and parts of northern Europe. This colourful insect can be seen in December in mild winters and Butterfly Conservation reported on their Facebook page that the organisation had received recent reports of butterflies being sighted and they shared a photo of a Red Admiral.

The Red Admiral has Christmas colours too because its wings are boldly market with red and white on dark brown and black. This pretty butterfly, which is also found in Asia and North America, is a migrant to the UK but it can hibernate so is a resident butterfly as well. It is one of the last species to be seen in the late autumn, and can be seen feeding on ivy blossom and on windfall fruit. It also flies on sunny and mild winter days.

The Red Admiral's caterpillars feed on Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). 

Painted Lady

Painted Lady (Photo: Public Domain)

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is not a butterfly you will see in the UK at Christmas, but here in Portugal it is still about in December and I saw one the other day in a sunny spell in what was otherwise a cold and foggy day. It was a very pleasant surprise and got me thinking about this butterfly that is a very successful species unlike so many butterflies that are rapidly declining in numbers.

The Painted Lady is another migrant to the UK and Northern Europe.  It comes from North Africa and the Canary Islands but its northerly migrations have taken it as far as Iceland where it is the only butterfly species that has been reported. The Painted Lady has been found in most parts of the world and is almost global in its distribution.

Unfortunately, unlike the Red Admiral, the Painted Lady is unable to survive British winters in any stage of its lifecycle.  It is a truly remarkable butterfly though because scientists have discovered that it uses the jet stream to carry it on its migrations. The Painted Lady leaves Britain in the autumn to fly south and it does this by being carried in the fast-moving air of the jet stream.  

Besides the Painted Lady's extraordinary migrations, the species does so well because its caterpillar will feed on a lot of different food-plants, including species of thistle (Carduus). Sunflower (Helianthus),  Mallow (Malva) and Burdock (Arctium). Like the larvae of the Red Admiral, the caterpillars of the Painted Lady will also eat nettles. Caterpillars of the Painted Lady are often sold by butterfly supply companies such as Worldwide Butterflies.  They are ideal for schools where children can study the insects and watch them transform from caterpillars into chrysalises into adult butterflies. 

Butterfly World Project

Many butterflies are in danger of becoming extinct in the modern world due to habitat loss, pesticides, herbicides, disease and Climate Change, so they need all the help we can give them. Butterfly World Project in St Albans was set up to help butterfly conservation but has been forced to announce its closure.  Please help by signing the petitions to stop this happening.  I have written all about it in a previous blog here

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