Monday 28 October 2019

Grass growing after the rain is a help to some butterfly species

After the rains in Portugal

New grass blades - Photo: Steve Andrews

Drought-stricken Portugal has at last had the autumn rains arrive. The land is swiftly going green again. One type of plant that quickly recovers and shoots from dormant seeds is any one of most species of grass. This is wonderful news for many butterfly species that need grass for their caterpillars.
Speckled Wood - Photo: Steve Andrews

The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  and Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) are two widely distributed butterflies that have larvae that feed on grass. Until recently female butterflies were presented with a major problem because most grass had shrivelled and died in the months of hot sunshine and little or no rain. Much of the countryside had become brown and dusty, and what vegetation that survived was tinder dry and in poor condition. However, millions of seeds have been left to germinate after being activated by the next showers of rain. It always amazes me to see how quickly the greenery returns to barren and dried up land that looks more like a desert. Not just grass but countless weeds and wildflowers swiftly cover the ground with their first shoots and seedling leaves. I delight in seeing so much going green again.
Brown ground going green again - Photo: Steve Andrews

Other butterflies

The Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) is another butterfly that was sure to have problems in a drought and that I had seen here. Weeks ago there were many specimens of this pretty little butterfly flying on the scrubland and along paths through the woodland. The vegetation under the trees were all dead and brown and I couldn’t find any leaves of the food-plants this butterfly needs. Species of Sorrel and Dock (Rumex spp.) are the plants the female Small Copper must find to lay her eggs on. Sadly, where I live, as far as I could see, none of them were still growing and what was left was either underground or as seeds. I really don’t know what this butterfly does in such conditions and there are no Small Coppers still about here to take advantage of any new growth. If they have somehow survived I will find out next year. 
Small Copper - Photo: Steve Andrews

Two more butterflies already returning to the countryside here are Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) and Small White (Pieris rapae). The former needs species of clovers and trefoils, and the latter looks for plants in the Cabbage family but can also use species of Mustard that grow wild. There should be plenty of food-plants for these butterflies in a while, once the seedlings have germinated and started growing again. This is what is happening here now. All plants that have been laying dormant underground as rootstocks or as seeds on the surface are being activated by the so welcome rains. It is wonderful news too, knowing that more rain is forecast for the rest of the week ahead. We need it!
Because butterfly females lay hundreds of eggs it gives them a far better chance of survival but it is still a mystery to me, as to how they get through periods when there are no green plants of the types they need to be found.
The Clouded Yellow

Thursday 24 October 2019

How a Supermarket Shrub Border Could Be A Butterfly Garden

My idea for a butterfly garden at the local supermarket

The shrub border and ground overlooking the supermarket
Every time I go to my nearest Continente supermarket branch here in Quinta do Conde, Portugal, I spend some time looking at the wildlife and plants growing in on a bank that overlooks the store and is planted in parts as a shrub border. Clumps of Lantana when in bloom attract butterflies, bees and Hummingbird Hawk-moths. In my mind it could be transformed easily into a butterfly garden. 

But let’s take a look at it as it is now. A lot of the ground gets very dry in hot weather but in wet weather it is covered in weeds. Wall Lizards have formed colonies and can often be seen basking on the concrete around fence posts by the pavement and along poles of wood used to terrace the ground. There is a Weeping Willow that is just about managing to hold its own and is a favourite place for flocks of House Sparrows to perch. Saplings of what looks like some type of Maple have been planted but out of four only one has survived the drought.
Sapling dying from lack of water

It remains to be seen whether the others will sprout now the rains have returned. Millions of ants live in nests in the ground and can often be seen making long trails from one part to another. But it is the butterflies that visit that have got me thinking that with a little bit of work this area could be made into a place where caterpillars could live and complete their transformations into chrysalis and then adult butterflies.The other day I was thinking about this and how all you would need would be a lot of clumps of Rue for the Swallowtails and Milkweed for Monarchs and that both these butterflies would do as well there as they do in the garden where I live. Amazingly, with these thoughts in my head, I was delighted to see a male Monarch and a Swallowtail feeding on nectar from the Lantana bushes. There was also a Small White and Painted Lady doing likewise. Sadly I had no camera with me at the time so couldn’t get photos of any of the butterflies.The Monarch had presumably flown all the way from the house where I live, which is about 15 minutes walk away. When I release butterflies I always wonder where they go. I know a few females always return to lay their eggs on plants I am growing for them but have no way of knowing what happens to the others. I also have no way of knowing if there are any more gardens in this town where Milkweed is grown, though I know there is plenty of Rue because it can be seen in many front gardens.

I have noted that the local Swallowtails are using the Rue in the gardens in preference to Fennel growing wild in the area. It is obvious why this is. Fennel, although an alternative food-plant for Swallowtail caterpillars, does not do well in the long periods of drought we have been having and it is often without any leaves. As I said earlier, Hummingbird Hawk-moths also feed at times from the Lantanas, though I haven’t seen many this year. It seems clear to me that butterflies and moths do a lot of flying about looking for mates and for food, for themselves and, if they are females, for their caterpillars. If a female Swallowtail had spied the Lantana flowers she might well have stopped to feed, and if she had seen a clump of Rue, she would probably have laid some eggs there. Monarch, Painted Lady, Small White and any other species females would do likewise if the plants their larvae need were growing on the supermarket's land. 
Two female Monarchs on Zinnias in my front garden

There is plenty of ground where other plants could be grown. The Rue would look after itself and is very drought resistant. Just a few clumps of this aromatic herb would result in more Swallowtails there. I could more or less guarantee it. I think it would be good for the public image of the supermarket, if it became known as a store that was helping the butterflies. And this could be done quite easily even though the ground I am talking about is next to a road and carpark. I have recently seen the news that the city of Hull in the UK has become a “Butterfly City,” because it has made the effort to plant many Buckthorns to feed the caterpillars of Brimstone butterflies. This pretty yellow butterfly is limited in its distribution by the availability of its food-plants, which are the Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn. If Hull can do this so could any other city or town. I hope the idea catches on! Likewise my proposal for a butterfly garden alongside a supermarket could be extended much further. Any businesses or public buildings with land attached to them could have butterfly gardens. Parks and gardens could be improved by simply planting more plants and shrubs that butterflies and moths need. Tragically, the numbers of butterflies and moths worldwide are declining fast. I think this could be reversed if more plants were grown that these winged wonders need. I realise most people would just see some waste ground next to the supermarket and might well think my idea is crazy but that doesn't stop me believing what I have outlined here could work. If can turn out generation after generation of butterflies from a small patch of front garden just think what I could do with all that land! Imagine that: a supermarket with its own butterfly garden! Now how can I make my dream a reality?
Full view of the land overlooking the Continente supermarket

Saturday 19 October 2019

The Butterfly Guy

You can call me "The Butterfly Guy."

Steve Andrews The Butterfly Guy in Lisbon

I am becoming known for being a “Butterfly Guy,” because I rear butterflies and share my achievements on social media. I also gave a talk on the subject of Butterfly Gardening to a gardening club in the Algarve a year or so back, and wrote about the subject for Mediterranean Gardening and Outdoor Living magazine. I have a song entitled Butterfly In My Beard and I recently bought a shirt with butterflies all over it. I thought it would be a great public image to have and helps show my love for these amazing insects. Butterfly In My Beard has the lyrics: “They called me a Bugman on the news one time…” and this makes reference to when I was once featured in the South Wales Echo and given this title in a story about how I kept exotic insects.
Bugman Steve Andrews in the South Wales Echo
I first discovered the joys of helping butterflies and moths when I was a little boy and have been doing what I can to help them all my life since then. I used to keep caterpillars in jam-jars, feeding them whatever they needed, watching them transform into a chrysalis or pupa in a cocoon, and then await the day they emerged as a magnificent butterfly or moth. There’s a twofold pleasure gained from rearing a butterfly or moth from egg to adult. First of all there is the joy of seeing the amazing insect in all its glory on its first day as a winged insect, and secondly there is the pride you experience from knowing you helped.

Swallowtails and Monarchs

Swallowtail on my hand

Since I have been living in Portugal I have been rearing Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and Swallowtails (Papilio machaon). I find it easy to do and would encourage other people to have a got at helping the butterflies in your area. You just need to grow the plants they need for their caterpillars and provide some flowering plants to provide nectar for the adults.

Female Monarch

Monarch female laying eggs on Milkweed
I grow Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) for the Monarchs and Rue (Ruta graveolens) for the Swallowtails. I have also grown Balloonplant (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) for the Monarchs, and it is a better plant because it grows much bigger. It is also naturalised in some parts of Portugal so is a food source for the caterpillars of the Monarch Butterfly that can be found here. Sadly last winter killed mine plants of it, though my Tropical Milkweeds made it through. 
Tropical Milkweed

Last year I had four generations of Monarchs with on average 30 butterflies eclosing from their chrysalises each time. It has been the same this year and at the time of writing I have about that number of caterpillars here. This will be the last brood for the year. I am running out of plants that still have enough leaves and flowers on them to feed all the hungry larvae and some of the small ones in the garden are going to perish because there is simply not enough food for them. This is a common problem for anyone who goes in for helping the Monarchs. You need to grow a lot of their food-plants. I tend to keep the caterpillars indoors in sandwich boxes or especially prepared large empty plastic water-bottles.
Monarch caterpillars pupating
The latter container I slice through around the middle for easy access, and this can be taped over with sticky tape. I put some tissue in the bottom to catch the frass. I use this method of looking after the caterpillars because I have observed that wasps are a very serious predator that will take away all the larvae they can find on a plant. 
Swallowtails just keep on breeding throughout the year with butterflies flying in every month apart from December and January. They make it through in the chrysalis stage, which remains dormant through the coldest months. Like the female Monarchs, the female Swallowtails return to the garden here because it is somewhere they can lay their eggs. Fortunately for the Swallowtail, Rue is a commonly grown garden plant here. They will also use Fennel and Wild Carrot, but in my experience the caterpillars do not like changing from one plant to another. Where I live most of the Swallowtails are depending on the Rue in local gardens because the Fennel growing wild doesn’t do well in the droughts we have had and loses all its foliage.

The Moths too

Death's-head Hawk-moth

This year, I reared some Death’s-head Hawk-moths (Acherontia atropos) too. I must admit I got the eggs from Worldwide Butterflies, because although I have seen lots of photos and videos of caterpillars of this species shared on social media groups about nature in Portugal, I have not come across them in the town where I live. I used to live in Tenerife and the Death’s-head was a common moth there. I used to find the massive caterpillars on Thornapple (Datura stramonium) and Lantana (Lantana camara). This is a moth species that is lucky to have a very wide range of food-plants, unlike many species that only have a limited range of plants their caterpillars can eat.
Death's-head Hawk caterpillar
I fed my caterpillars on Potato and Privet, which are two of the alternative food sources for the larvae of this magnificent species. This moth gets its name from the marking like a skull on the back of its thorax. It can also squeak and is a very strange but beautiful creature. Unlike its caterpillars, which can eat many types of plant, the adult Death’s-head may have difficulty finding suitable food because it has a very short proboscis. One food it can eat, however, is honey, and this is why it is compelled to enter and rob beehives.
When I lived in the UK I used to keep various moth caterpillars there. I had a lot of success with the Poplar Hawk (Laothoe populi) and Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellatus). I grew a small Sallow tree in the garden and this attracted the female moths. Getting back to butterflies, at the same time in the UK, I had Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) and Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) caterpillars on a patch of Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) I had growing. 
That is all you really need to do: grow plants that the caterpillars of butterflies and moths need as food, and provide food for the adults by growing flowers and flowering shrubs. I have Zinnias and a Buddleia/Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), as two of the main attractions for butterflies and moths as sources of nectar. Feed the caterpillars and feed the adult insects and you will have success at helping moths and butterflies.
Monarch on Zinnia