Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Being a Butterfly

The Trials and Tribulations in the Life of a Butterfly

Speckled Wood (Photo: Pixabay)
You may think that a butterfly has an easy life because all it looks like it needs is some sunshine to fly around in and some flowers to feed from. Whilst these are requirements for the insect’s life it actually needs a lot more than that. I watch butterflies in the wild and often wonder about them. Do they manage to find mates? Will they survive the very bad weather?
The most important issue in a butterfly’s short life, which for many species is just a few weeks, is to find a mate. For a mated female, she then has to find the right plants to lay her many eggs on. Both of these seemingly simple needs can become very difficult in the world today. It doesn’t surprise me at all that very many species are experiencing a terrible decline in numbers.
Every day I walk to the local shops and my route takes me through some waste ground and woodland. I get some exercise by walking and I get to check out what is happening in the world of nature. Today I saw only one butterfly. It was a rather ragged Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) that was out and about despite the cold wind. At least it was dry and sunny. Now, this is a very common species still, and my butterfly book for Portugal tells me they can be seen all year round here, but nevertheless, it was the only one of its kind flying in the area I walked through. Imagine if this was a very rare species. What would its chances be like for finding another of its type, and one of the opposite sex?
Spanish Festoon
Last year I saw a Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina). I had never seen one before, apart from in books. If it was a female and if it had already mated its job in life was to find some Birthwort (Aristolochia longa) to lay its eggs on. I have been here nearly four years, have a very good eye for spotting plants, and have not seen any examples of this plant, or any related species in the pipevine family that the butterfly can also use as a foodplant. This Butterfly Corner website about the species says: “Because of the rarity of larval food, the Spanish Festoon is not common.” This doesn’t surprise me at all, and is a very good example showing how dependent butterflies are on having the right plants available for their caterpillars.
3-winged Monarch (Photo: Steve Andrews)
When I lived in Tenerife, I remember seeing how strongly a female butterfly is driven to laying her eggs on the correct plants. My cat had caught a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) but I was quick enough to rescue it. Only one big problem: it now only had three wings. Nevertheless, once it had recovered it flew away, only to return an hour later to the potted Tropical Milkweed I had now moved up onto the wall. The butterfly was laying her eggs and she came back every day for the next two weeks. She ignored the danger of my cat and she managed to fly despite losing a wing.
Mallow Skipper
Yes, finding the right plants and finding mates can be a real problem. I remember, last year, I saw a Mallow Skipper (Carcharodus alceae) in the garden. I know this is a fairly common species, although I had not seen one before, but what struck me was that we were in hot drought conditions, and any mallow plants had long shrivelled up in the heat. If this was a female butterfly where would she lay her eggs? Certainly not in the garden here or on local waste ground where mallow plants are common earlier in the year.
Red Admiral (Photo: Pixabay)
If you are a male Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), you are driven to look for a female of your species. I watched one last year that appeared to have set up territory in a patch of scrubland that borders on a small forest. Every sunny day I walked through this patch of ground I saw him. I guessed he was waiting patiently in the hope a female Red Admiral would fly into his territory. I am pretty certain it was the same butterfly because it was always in the same location, and there was always only one. Did he ever find a mate, or did he die a failed and lonely batchelor butterfly? I shall never know but it is something I have wondered about.

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