On A Wing and A Prayer
We know them as the iridescent beauties that flutter through our gardens and parks – but in the last century, we have lost 70% of our butterflies. All of us, whether we own a garden, allotment or just a window box, can help bring them back, writes Kate Hodal
IF YOU think teens have it bad, going from cute childhood to spotty adolescence before emerging into the adult world, imagine being a butterfly.
The symbol of hope and wisdom in many countries around the world, the butterfly’s complicated metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar, cocoon to delicately winged creature, is unparalleled in our universe.
And, for that reason, it is perhaps the best example of how change should be welcomed rather than feared. Because just when the caterpillar thought the world was about to end, it became a butterfly – or so goes the adage.
But the metamorphosis is not the only incredible feat the butterfly has to share with us.
“Butterflies are the most amazing creatures in this world,” says botanist and former broadcaster David Bellamy, who fell in love as a child with the ringlet butterflies that fluttered among and pollinated the flowers of his backyard.
“Without butterflies, we wouldn’t have flowers. But without flowers, we wouldn’t have butterflies. It’s a chicken-and-egg riddle that even Charles Darwin couldn’t solve.”
Bellamy, along with environmentalist extraordinaire Sir David Attenborough, is backing the UK’s largest butterfly and moth conservation project, a 27-acre site in Hertfordshire that will be home to 10,000 butterflies and moths on completion in 2012.
The brainchild of Clive Farrell, one of the world’s leading lepidopterists (butterfly experts), Butterfly World is now open to the public in a taster phase before closing again in early-October to house a rainforest dome home for 250 different species of the insect. It will be the largest butterfly display of its kind anywhere in the world.
“The populations of 70% of our butterflies and moths have been in a state of decline (in the past century) and there have been a number of extinctions, but all is not lost,” says Farrell.
“I hope that the meadows on our site will give some of the butterflies that are more common in other parts of Britain a reason to move over here – like meadow browns, marbled whites and common blues – so that they can prosper and we can see how beautiful they are.”
A DELICATE LIFE
Butterflies live short but robust lives, starting out as one of about 200 eggs on the leaves of plants.
As only a few will survive, their birth site is chosen with utmost care, found by the mother at first by sight and then by a combination of taste and smell. Red admirals lay their eggs only on stinging nettles; common blues prefer bird’s-foot trefoil.
Once the egg hatches, the emerging caterpillar then eats the leaves on which it was born. And in this stage of life, it will do little but eat, as it is growing fast – if human babies grew as quickly as a caterpillar, they would be the size of a double-decker bus by only one month old, according to Butterfly World.
Fully fed, the caterpillar then finds a leaf (or matchbox) to nest in, or will spin itself a silken pad and wait for its body to be broken down and its adult wings, eyes, organs and proboscis (that long, curly tongue used to drink up nectar) to develop. It is usually at this stage that children discover their love of butterflies as the metamorphosis is a phenomenon too spectacular to miss, says Farrell.
“The feeling I still get today from this stage is one of freedom and colour and liberation,” he explains.
“The change between a caterpillar and a butterfly is so deeply symbolic that, in many religions, the butterfly represents the soul leaving the body.”
Once an adult, a butterfly – with its shiny wings refracting in the sunlight – will fly off to feed or find a mate, a process that can take only a few hours for species such as the blue morpho.
Or they can migrate: painted ladies have been known to fly to Britain from North Africa (as happened earlier this year), while the monarch has been known to traverse the Atlantic.
They help pollinate our food crops, but butterflies and moths have been disappearing from Britain’s fields and meadows at an alarming rate.
Since the 1940s, 97% of the UK’s meadows have been destroyed, along with ancient woodland, peat bogs and downland, according to Butterfly Conservation, the UK’s leading charity dedicated to protecting butterflies and moths.
As a result, five of the 60 species resident in the UK have already become extinct and a further two-thirds are on their way out. Even common butterflies have lost out as hedges and field boundaries rich in wild flowers and grasses have either been ploughed down or destroyed with pesticides, one of butterflies’ worst enemies.
But all of us, whether we own a garden, allotment or just a window box, can help bring our butterflies back. In fact, a combination of science, conservation and astute gardening has already helped bring back many threatened species, including the large blue, which has been successfully reintroduced after its extinction in 1979.
With British gardens covering more than two million acres of land, comprising 15million different gardens, Butterfly Conservation reckons that each and every garden can be a mini-nature reserve for butterflies and moths.
A HELPING HAND
Follow these tips from Butterfly Conservation to encourage more butterflies into your garden:
Plant flowers – “A butterfly’s proboscis acts as a snorkel to soak up nectar in flowers”, says Bellamy, so plant some favourites to ensure a pit-stop for a butterfly as it flies on to a more suitable habitat. The top five “foods” that butterflies like are Buddleia, Ice-plant (sedum), Lavender, Michaelmas Daisy and Marjoram (or oregano).
Feed caterpillars – adult butterflies lay eggs on the leaves of food plants, so plant according to which kind of butterflies you would like to see. Stinging nettles are favoured by commas and red admirals. Ivy is good for holly blues, buckthorn for brimstones, garlic mustard for orange tips, and hop and bird’s-foot trefoil for common blues.
Go wild – wild flowers and grasses are great for all kinds of butterflies. So if you can, sow a mix, but be sure your flowers are British: Flora Locale (www.floralocale.org) has a list of suppliers of native plants.
Garden carefully – pesticides and herbicides kill butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects, as well as ladybirds, ground beetles and spiders. If you can, try to avoid peat-based compost as the peat is taken from peat bogs, which are home to butterflies such as the large heath, a species declining across Europe.
Want to become a volunteer or member of Butterfly Conservation? You could help monitor and survey butterflies and moths, work on nature reserves or help on practical conservation tasks. Phone 01929 400 209 or visit http://www.butterfly-conservation.org to find details of three regional Scottish branches.
Butterfly Conservation Scotland will hold its third Members Day on September 26 at the Birnam Institute, near Dunkeld, in Perthshire.
Find out more about Butterfly World by logging on to http://www.butterfly-world.org