Fat purple buddleia burgeoning on the hedges and waste ground, and no butterflies. I found a dead beauty on the floor of a shower unit in a room we rarely use; it was a small tortoiseshell in the vivid colours of a Persian carpet fresh from the loom.
It had been hibernating somewhere about the house and somehow found itself in this glass box of the shower unit and, while the top was, of course, open, it failed to find its way out. It was a creature of astounding beauty. I tried to carry it off to put it in a sideboard or table in out living room, just to show to friends, but before I knew it, one of the delicate blue-tipped antennae had fallen off and, although I found it on the path, it couldn’t be affixed again, no blob of superglue could be small enough to be invisible. So, it was now imperfect, and therefore, not exhibitable in all its glory. And, so glorious it was!
My readers will all know the small tortoiseshell; it is one of our most common butterflies, certainly the most common of the beautiful Vanessas, the family which includes the peacock, red admiral and painted lady. It, like the peacock, overwinters with us. The other two are migrants and they, having laid eggs and generated a new brood to enhance our countryside and country walks, die off by October, although a red admiral is sometimes seen still flying as late as December and, indeed, some lepidopterists maintain that there may be a reverse migration of red admirals, that they may return to the Mediterranean, whence they come, or even North Africa, as far as Egypt. However, this contention is unproven. Certainly, they have strong, resilient wings, and fly long distances on their way to Northern Europe, as far as Iceland, each year.
But this year, they haven’t come. I saw one or two solitary individuals in the Canary Islands in March, and one or two painted ladys. Upon our return here in April, I found a small tortoiseshell, its wings closed, still half in hibernation behind the curtains when we drew them back, and another emerged one evening, flying across the living room when we were watching TV: we had the central heating on and this had perhaps woken it into a false spring.
The only butterflies I saw many of (and the ‘many’ were only 20% of the usual numbers) were speckled woods, which our location especially favours as the boundary consists of large trees with corridors of sunlight between, the sort of habitat in which speckled woods joust and spiral in mock battles, claiming territory, a sun-lit corridor and a space of forest floor beneath the trees.
In May, they were joined by a few green-veined whites, and I photographed a common blue. Although I walk a route where small heaths and ringlets normally frequent the ditches from June, I saw none; it was mid July before I saw a couple of small heaths each patrolling a section of laneway and, occasionally meeting on the boundaries, whereupon a brief skirmish ensued.
It had been an awful year for pollination: Hover flies are outstanding in their absence. There are few bees, no wasps (apart from a fat queen, 50% larger than the workers, which I saw in May; but she cannot have succeeded in establishing a nest).
Our verbena in the garden is blooming: I have seen it, on other years, so ‘tricked out’ in Vanessa butterflies that one could hardly see the countless small purple flowers of the blooms. There were, amongst them, silver-washed fritillaries and clouded yellows; this year, not a single butterfly has visited. One hopes they are simply late, that the season, like global politics, is out of kilter.
According to Butterfly Conservation Ireland, from the records submitted so far, “the total number of butterflies recorded is down a whopping 54% on 2015”.
I took a random look at notes I made in previous years. On August 4, 2010, I recorded: “Mixed sunshine & cloud. Buddleia in garden swarming with butterflies. In 10 mins, I saw 3 or 4 admirals, 2 peacock, 1 silverwashed frit, 1 meadowbrown, 1 speckled wood, 4 tortoishell, 3 large white, 2 small white, 2 painted lady.”
However, let us not despair of 2016. Winds from the south east could bring in the admirals and painted ladys. Who knows but they may be already on their way — along with good weather? — and on August 2, you’ll have a painted lady from Morocco make landfall on your Irish Examiner as you peruse it in your sunlit garden with your morning cup of tea.
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