Butterflies are quite numerous and active at present, there is even a big public survey being conducted at the moment in aid of their conservation; it is after all the height of summer with warm air and flowers abounding – just try not to think about how few there are now compared to decades past. Who doesn’t like butterflies? Hardly anyone that’s who, I personally prefer moths but my opinion isn’t important, the point is that these six-legged, nectar sucking flappy things are conspicuous poster boys for nature conservation perhaps because anyone can enjoy them without specialist equipment or arduous travel to special reserves (unless you want to see some rare ones).
Let me first put to bed the myth that all butterflies are very colourful and therefore the only insects worth paying attention to. There are 59 species of resident butterfly in Britain of which at least 22 are dull coloured with predominantly brown, grey, murky orange or plain white wings. The best example is perhaps the Meadow Brown which is frankly duller than the dullest moth, also compared to a lot of other insects butterflies are frustratingly skittish, often flying past very fast without landing or whizzing into the air as soon as they see a camera. I will admit quite happily though that there really are some wonderfully beautiful butterflies that are always a joy to see and definitely worth protecting.
The name ‘Butterfly’ is really quite strange when you think about it, considering how distinctive in shape and flight and colour these insects are you would have thought that a better name would have stuck. It is thought that the name originates from the colour of the Brimstone, which is widespread and one of the earliest to fly in spring, alternatively it could be from the belief that they are fond of lapping up butter from uncovered dishes. I think that this name does not do them justice, on the other hand the Latin names are very pretty and fit these diaphanous creatures well.
Pierids: this name covers all of the white butterflies (except the marbled) as well as the clouded yellows and Brimstone.
Nymphalids: This name refers to the fairies of old and covers some of Britain’s most impressive species including the big-winged gliders such as Red Admiral, Tortoiseshell, Purple Emperor and Peacock as well as all of the Fritillaries – which although attractive do all look very similar.
Satyrids: Named after the mythical fauns these butterflies are all the Browns (and confusingly the Marbled White); characterised by dull colours and small eye-spots.
Lycaenids: These small things are the Hairstreaks, Coppers and Blues, showing off very bright colours they are always high up or flying very fast without rest!
Hesperiids: The cute little Skippers (a perfect English name) are a tricky group to ID but all full of character, slightly moth-like and the most confiding of all the butterflies.
Right now, in fine, still weather is a great time to see a lot of these papery, metamorphosing flutter-bys, although they are none of them as abundant as they once were you can still attract them with nectar-filled flowers such as Buddleia or provide them with food-plants for the caterpillars to munch (Brimstones are partial to Alder-buckthorn), also send in any sightings to Butterfly Conservation or your local recorder.