But­ter­flies’ ae­rial war­fare

Canal Boat - - Waterside Wildlife -

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

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