The weather has improved; the butterflies are flying.
I’m fortunate in having a white buddleia bush growing next door. Butterflies on purple buddleia are gorgeous, but on white buddleia the brightly coloured Vanessas, especially Red Admirals, are spectacular.
This year, it is almost all Red Admirals that festoon the plant. At times, three together occupy a single long, fat, conical flower head.
The thousands of tiny florets comprising the head are pristine white, each with a tiny golden eye; the Red Admirals are black, with vivid red slashes and white wing patches.
The contrast is magnificent! How wondrous is Nature, Gaia, The Great Creator, whatever your chose to call her. What an eye for colour she has!
Buddleia bushes are called for Rev Adam Buddle, a British botanist who studied plants in the Caribbean and was persuaded to send a sample of the purple variety home.
The white variety, Buddleia davidii alba, was found by Father Armand David, a Basque missionary in China.
Like it’s purple cousin, it is now naturalised (wild) in Ireland, although in lesser numbers.
This year, Vanessa butterflies are noticeable by their absence everywhere. Tortoiseshells and Peacock, that hibernate here as adults (and are thus ‘resident’), are few and far between.
I counted just nine Painted Ladies, migrants from Morocco, on buddleia and knapweed last week. In 2009, hundreds of thousands arrived in these islands.
I walk the same route regularly but have seen not a single Ringlet, and few Meadow Browns, in their usual places.
Concern has been voiced by naturalists and commentators in Britain as well as Ireland.
In Britain, however, conservationists have cause to celebrate the return of the Large Blue, Maculinea rebeli. For half a century, etymologists had tried to stop its decline but it was officially declared extinct in 1979 (it was never an Irish species).
Re-introduced in 1984, the discovery of its extraordinary life cycle enabled suitable habitat and symbiotic red ant colonies to be set up.
This year in Somerset and Gloucestershire reserves, monitors counted some 10,000 adults on the wing.
Eggs are laid on marjoram or thyme, its food plants. Caterpillars hatch and climb to the ground beneath; there, they exude a scent matching that of one particular species of red ant.
The ants are attracted and carry the caterpillar/grub away, as one of their own. It now has surrogate mothers galore to insure its protection.
This is clever — but even more bizarre behaviour follows.
As reported in Science magazine, Dr. Jeremy Thomas of Oxford University and his team noticed that the butterfly larvae received special treatment: when disturbed, the ants protected it, even at the cost of their own lives. Smell, he thought wasn’t the only factor.
The butterfly larvae produced a ticking noise, as did the ants, but the ‘song’ of worker ants and queen ants differed subtly. And the butterfly grubs clicked with not only a posh accent, but more than posh, a Royal Family accent.
If such distinctions seem obscure, think of the British royal family. When British royals say ‘idea’, they pronounce it as ‘idear’; if they say ‘Asia’, it becomes ‘Azejur’.
It seems traditional for royals to speak strangely (El Cid introduced the lisp to Spanish). Certain esoteric speech mannerisms are exclusively royal; even Eton boys or Rodean girls don’t presume to emulate the ‘grand’ manner.
So, the peasant ants, upon hearing the exclusive royal ant accent are, immediately, in awe and act accordingly.
Their life’s purpose is to serve their larval queen, which is what the caterpillar purports to be although, in fact, she is not in any way ethnically related to ants, just as the Windsors are not ethnically British but of Wettin-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha German blood.
It would seem these ants don’t have much native cop-on. So long as it smells like an ant and sings like an ant, they assume it is an ant.
They install the royal pretender comfortably in the ant-grub nursery, where it eats all its soft little ant-grub companions in a feast extending 10 months, replenished constantly with new ant offspring.
Don’t the ants miss their offspring that go missing?, one might ask. Don’t they notice the cuckoo in the nest growing bigger, or spot it in the execution of its dastardly deeds? Don’t the ant-grubs squeak in protest?
Doesn’t the fake queen slaver at the dewlaps? The answer to all is: apparently not. The mindless ants restock the nursery and the caterpillar chomps on.
At last replete, the great pretender crawls to earth, a gorgeous Large Blue butterfly. Without regrets (presumably butterflies don’t feel regrets) it spreads its new wings, leaves its earth-bound minions, and soars into the clear Gloucestershire air.
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