Standing and Staring

Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais utricae) on buddleia

Dear Readers, this year I did the Butterfly Conservation Trust Big Butterfly Count for the first time. Sadly, it was a windy day, and all I spotted were two small whites and a painted lady, but it did give me a taste for standing next to a buddleia and seeing who turns up. So, this weekend I was in Somerset, and my Aunt Hilary’s garden was sporting an unusual variegated buddleia with deep purple flowers. It was a warm, sunny day, and so I decided to wait and see how many different species I could spot if I didn’t have a time limit.

First up were the red admirals (Vanessa atalanta). They seemed quite combative on occasion, pursuing one another but I am not sure if their intentions were aggressive or libidinous. What is lovely about them, however, is that once they are feeding you can approach them very closely without them seeming to be the slightest bit disturbed.

Red admirals are unmistakable when their wings are open, but one way of identifying them when their wings are closed is by the pale yellow blotch at the top of the hindwing, which you can see in the photo below. I love the chocolate-brown velvet of their wings, with those tomato-red markings.

The red admirals looked mint-fresh. Some of them could be visitors from mainland Europe – the main ‘fall’ of these migrants is in May and June, but it continues all summer. These migrants lay eggs as they head north, and by this time of year some adults will be emerging from their chrysalises. These new adults may hibernate in sheds or lofts, or they may head south again.

The caterpillars feed on nettles, and they sew the leaves together with silk – keep an eye open if you have a nettle patch nearby. The larvae are black spikey fellows with a yellow line along the side, but it can be difficult to tell them apart from those of other species, such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock. My Guide to Garden Wildlife book by Richard Lewington suggests growing a container full of nettles, ideally at different stages of growth, in a warm, sheltered spot.

For a long time, there was a belief that the name ‘red admiral’ was a corruption of ‘red admirable’. However, it was found that the name ‘admiral’ is much older, and the generally accepted explanation now is that the ‘admirals’ were butterflies that had patches of white or yellow in their upper wings, which reminded the viewer of the ensign raised when an admiral was on board a ship, which had white patches in the corners.

Red admirals were also often believed to reference the flames of hell: it is said that a ‘red butterfly’ was hunted as a witch in the north of England and the Borders. We are fortunate that these days we can largely enjoy the natural world without demonising it.

Then, a single small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) turned up. These are not as common as the red admirals, and had something of a bad year last year, so it was good to see one. Part of the problem may be a parasite, a little fly called Sturmia bella. It lays its eggs on nettles, and these are then ingested by the caterpillars (who are sociable creatures, unlike those of the red admiral, which lead solitary lives), and you may spot a web full of tiny black larvae, again on nettle. When the eggs hatch, they eat the unfortunate larva from the inside out. The parasite is surviving over winter more often, so this could be another side effect of climate change.

Small tortoiseshells have a characteristic resting posture, with their wings angled downwards as if they were wearing a cloak.

The males are said to be territorial, and any passing females will be hotly pursued. However, this one was just tetchy to begin with, chasing off the red admirals until finally s/he seemed to realise that it wasn’t worth the expenditure of energy, and settled down to feed.

Those blue spots along the edges of the wing are pretty much diagnostic for the small tortoiseshell, though its orange-ish colour means that it’s sometimes mistaken for the painted lady. I love that in Germany the small tortoiseshell is known as ‘the little fox’.

And then, an unmistakable butterfly, the comma (Polygonia c-album). No other butterfly in the UK has those ragged wings, and yet this is an energetic, fast-flying creature, and it took me quite a while to get a photo of one. It was worth it, though. It looks like a sliver of Baltic amber.

The comma suffered a considerable set back during the 19th century – its caterpillars largely fed on hops, and with the decline in the beer industry it lost most of its foodplants. At one point, it was thought to be limited to the Welsh Border counties. However, the adults started to lay their eggs on nettles, and the butterfly has staged something of a comeback. ‘Our’ comma is probably hatched from a spring-laid egg: these butterflies are much lighter in colour than those who have hibernated over winter.

The name ‘comma’ comes from a white mark on the underside of the wing (which you can just about make out on the photo below).

So, after all these colourful insects (all of them are known as vanessids) we move on to the sparrows of the butterfly world, the satyrids. First up was a speckled wood (Parage aegeria).  This chap wasn’t interested in feeding from the buddleia: he gets most of his nectar from honeydew secreted onto leaves by aphids, and this explains the way that he was licking these rather raggedy leaves.


These are really woodland butterflies ( I’ve written about them before here) but it was good to see one in the garden. The eggs are laid on long grass, as are those of many other butterflies, so in addition to your bucket of nettles it’s good to leave a corner of the lawn unmown. When I’ve watched speckled woods before, they’ve been very aggressive, spiralling up into the air to attack other passing males, but this one seemed very peaceable, so maybe it was too late in the year to be bothered.

Below we see a female meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) (the females tend to be lighter in colour than the males, but both have the characteristic eyespots). These are the commonest butterflies in the UK and exist in huge colonies on grassland. It’s another creature that lays its eggs on long grass, and the caterpillar is hairy, green and very difficult to see when it adopts its characteristic pose against the stem.


So, it’s clear that a patch of buddleia will attract many butterflies, but increasingly it’s being realised that we need to grow plants for the insects to lay their eggs on too, and for their caterpillars to feed upon. Things like nettles and long grass may make for a more untidy garden, but it’s no use having butterflies on the wing if they can’t reproduce. In my ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, he recommends doing your research first to see what animals are likely to already be in the area – there’s no point in growing a foodplant for a creature that has never been seen locally. Also, have a look at what environments are close by – our little patches of ancient forest in East Finchley are where the great spotted woodpeckers and jays that visit my garden live for most of the time. Personally, I’m hoping for speckled wood in my garden, because I know that they live locally, and I am lucky to have several mature trees.

But it is also useful to have nectar-rich plants for hungry migrants such as painted ladies and red admirals, and seeing these insects makes me happy, which is reason enough to grow them as far as I’m concerned. As I look out  of my office window, I can see the last flowers on the buddleia in the front garden swaying in the wind, and a bumblebee trying to land. The honeybees from the local allotment are feeding happily, and a red admiral just flew away, flapping to gain height and get over the roof of the house. There is a lot to be said for just stopping and staring, and seeing what’s going on. Nothing is better for slowing down that monkey-mind that so many of us suffer from these days, and for grounding us back into the present.




7 thoughts on “Standing and Staring

  1. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    A lovely post. We see all of the butterflies that you’ve mentioned, but we also see lots of Peacocks. We wondered why we’d only seen one or two Small Tortoiseshells this year, we had no idea about the parasite. Last year on our walk, we’ll always remember turning the corner and on a patch of nettles were hundreds of the black, twinkly caterpillars of the Red Admiral, what an amazing sight.

    1. Bug Woman

      Amazing! I haven’t seen any peacocks yet, which is a shame because they are my favourites ( I know you’re not supposed to have favourites, but who could resist them?)

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    A very nice post which I can very easily identify with. 😊 My butterfly book also says a subtle difference between the Large and Small Tortoiseshell is that the Large has a black spot or stain towards the back, outside corner on the (top of the) fore-wing, whereas the Small doesn’t have it. We have had quite a few Tortoiseshells this year – especially the small ones. Indeed, I tend to dismiss them now as being too common, though I know I shouldn’t. My wife has been talking about uprooting our nettles to ‘develop’ the side/back of the house, but now I may have to talk her out of it. 😊

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Mike, unfortunately the large tortoiseshell became extinct in the UK back in the 1960’s, although with warmer winters, who knows if it will come back?

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