Butterflies’ aerial warfare
Butterflies seem such delicate creatures, but the aerial skirmishes of male Speckled Woods enliven many a saunter alongside woodland margins and hedgerows by the towpath.
Perching on a leaf in a pool of sunshine amid the dappled shade, any intruder is attacked, the two male butterflies spiralling round each other, bumping and clashing wings as they ascend, until the winner returns to the same patch of sunlight, his rival ejected from his few square metres of territory.
Their chocolate and cream markings are unmistakable: on the wing from March to October, they have one of the longest seasons of any British butterfly, though individual adults seldom live longer than a week. After overwintering as either a hibernating caterpillar or chrysalis, two or three overlapping broods of adults emerge throughout the year, later broods being darker coloured.
They are the only “brown” butterfly (a family that lay their eggs on grasses) with three small cream-ringed black and white eyespots on each hindwing and one on each forewing.
The caterpillars chomp away on mundane grass, but the adults fly to the treetops in the summer, drinking sweet honeydew which coats the leaves. They descend to sup nectar from flowers in autumn and – since the second brood peaks in late August or early September – they also take advantage of the brambles in woodland or hedgerow, supping the blackberry juices (particularly if the fruit is beginning to ferment).
There are about 400 microspecies of wild blackberry growing in the UK. A member of the rose family, each has a distinctive flower and flavour to the fruit. Blackberries are compound fruits rather than berries: many tiny drupes (a seed encased in a hard shell surrounded by a fleshy coating, such as a plum) are arranged around a swollen stalk.
Butterflies have no mouth to eat with; instead they have a long straw-like proboscis to suck up juices and nectar, which they keep coiled up when they are not feeding. They are reliant on other animals to breach the skin of the drupes. Wasps have stronger jaws than most insects, designed for chewing wood into paper-like nest material, and they also love blackberries. Other insects can then access the oozing juices, the butterflies including the ragged orange Comma and handsome Red Admiral, as well as the Speckled Woods.
You may notice serpentinelike white tracks on the bramble leaves. These are formed by the caterpillars of pygmy moths ( Nepticula aurella), one of a number of insect larvae that live within the leaves, tunnelling between the upper and lower layers. The track gets wider as the caterpillars grow.
Our ancestors used a concoction of boiled bramble leaves, with added ingredients, as a lotion and for fastening teeth back in!
Brambles produce long, thorny, arching shoots that root easily where they reach the ground and flower in the second year of growth. The strong, backward-pointing thorns enable the plant to scramble through vegetation and make it very difficult to detach from other plants or clothes. In parts of England the stems are called ‘lawyers’ because, “when once they get a hold on you, you don’t easily get rid of them”.
The bramble usually flowers in July and August and the blackberries, ripening from mid-August to October, provide a feast for, among others, blackbirds, chaffinches, bullfinches, starlings, robins, foxes, wood mice, and we humans. Pick the big, juicy black ones – they are delicious straight off the bramble or eaten with icing sugar and cream – but get them before the frost does.
According to tradition, it is unsafe to gather them after Michaelmas (29 September) for that was when the devil was kicked out of heaven and spat on the blackberry bush in his rage.
Enjoy sharing the fruits of early autumn.
A fiercely territorial Speckled Wood