My Favourite Butterfly

This I-Spy Butterflies and Moths book was one of the reasons I became fascinated by insects as a child.  I loved the Red Admiral on the front cover, particularly because they were not so easy to find where I lived and so seeing one felt very special.  Here is a photograph I took last year of a Red Admiral near to where I grew up.  Maybe I am getting better at spotting them! 

Although the Red Admiral is a beautiful butterfly, it is not my absolute favourite.  The butterfly I came to love above all others, and the one that I look forward to seeing every year, is the Peacock butterfly, Aglais io.   These beautiful butterflies are out and about in our gardens, woodlands and open spaces right now.  On a sunny day, see if you can spot one basking in the sunshine.  Read on to find out why Peacocks are my favourite butterflies.

Masters of Disguise

One of the most distinctive of our butterflies, and surely one of the most beautiful, there is no mistaking the Peacock.  I just love their stunning wings with their dark red background topped with four iridescent eyes resembling the feathers of a peacock bird. In fact, the Peacock butterfly is a master of mimicry.  The eyes make it look like something much scarier than a butterfly. When you look at the body and the eyes together, they look, I think, remarkably like the face of an owl.  That would certainly put off a smaller bird from trying to have a peck! The underside of the Peacock is also worth mentioning as its woody, bark-like colour and patterns provide excellent camouflage when the butterfly’s wings are closed.

Peacock Butterfly – Ventral view (underside)

 

Don’t get stung

Looking for a Peacock caterpillar?  Then there is only one place you should look – in a bed of nettles!  Be careful not to get stung, this is where the adult females lay their eggs. What a great adaptation to use the plant’s stinging capabilities to protect your young!  Other species of butterfly also do this, including the Red Admiral and the Small Tortoiseshell.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to allow nettles to grow in your gardens.  Without them, several important butterfly species have nowhere to lay their eggs.  Try to leave a wild area in your garden to encourage the widest variety of insects possible.  Pretty flowers are important but they are not the only plants that insects need! 

Peacock Caterpillar Flickr Mark Seton CC-BY-NC 2.0

Hidden Winter Treasures

Peacocks are one of the few butterflies in this country that hibernate in the winter as adults, emerging in the spring to mate and lay the eggs for the next generation. The other butterfly species that over-winter as adults are the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), the Comma (Polygonia c-album), the Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). We may also be able to add the Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros) to this list.  Once widespread, this butterfly has been lost in the UK since the 1960s.  However, sightings in Southern England have been increasing and it is hoped that this butterfly is making a comeback.  To find out more, check out this interesting article Tracking down the Large Tortoiseshell.

Every now and again, you might be lucky enough to find a Peacock butterfly sheltering in a quiet corner of your house or in your garden shed during the winter.  If you do, don’t disturb them as they need to stay asleep until spring.  As a child, I remember finding a hibernating Peacock butterfly in the folds of some rarely-drawn curtains in the cold spare bedroom.  I kept peeking at it regularly until one early spring day, the butterfly was gone. 

Next week, check out Susie’s post showing you how to make a butterfly feeder to help attract butterflies to your outside space. 

Do you have a favourite butterfly?  I’d love to hear about it.  Contact us or email hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk

chafers

During the summer you may notice large beetles flying around in gardens and other green spaces. These insects are called ‘chafers’. While they may look similar, there are in fact several different species all known by this common name.

The name chafer comes from the Old English word for beetle, ceafor. It is similar to the modern German word for beetle, käfer. So, ‘chafer’ really just means ‘beetle’ but in English it came to be used for beetles that were particularly noticeable. Chafers got themselves noticed because they are large, the adults can fly and often emerge in large numbers at the same time of year, sometimes making a buzzing noise as they fly. They are attracted to lights, so often fly in open windows, then bump around the room trying to get out. Farmers and gardeners often think of them as pests because they can damage plants.

Chafers all have a similar life cycle. The larvae live in the soil or dead wood, often for several years. They are sometimes thought of as pests because they may feed on the roots and other parts of plants, but they are important recyclers, feeding on dead, decaying material and helping to return the nutrients it contains back into the soil. The larvae then pupate and survive the cold winter months in this form. The adults emerge in late spring, or summer, depending on the species. It may seem that large numbers of beetles have suddenly appeared out of nowhere, but in fact these adults have just emerged at the same time. The adult beetles mate and lay eggs which will become the next generation of larvae.

Cockchafer, Melolontha melolonta

The largest of the British chafers is the cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha). The adults emerge in late April or May, giving it another common name, the ‘Maybug’. They fly in a wobbly way and make a buzzing noise. This can make them seem a bit alarming but they are completely harmless to humans.

Cockchafers were once a huge agricultural pest and could emerge in such numbers that people were encouraged to eat them! A French recipe for cockchafer soup was published in the 1800s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockchafer_soup) and in the 1920s, German children were reportedly eating sugar coated cockchafers.

Pesticides brought this marvellous beetle to the brink of extinction in the UK during the last century. Now changes in agriculture and pesticide use mean that cockchafers are making a comeback and they can be found across England, although they still rarer in Scotland. The nationally much rarer Northern Cockchafer (Melolontha hippocastani) is found in Scotland, Northern England and Ireland.

The Summer Chafer (Amphimallon soltitiatis) looks a bit like the cockchafer, but is smaller, at about 20mm, and had a rounded, rather than pointed tail end . Traditionally, this beetle is associated with the Summer Solstice, or longest day of the year, because the adults often emerge in the second half of June. In fact, the Summer Chafer can be found all over Britain in June and July. Kate and Susie found lots of Summer Chafers on a visit to Orchard Meadow Primary School in Oxford on 23 June this year and have seen it in the grounds of several other schools we have visited.

Another similar beetle is the Welsh Chafer Hoplia philanthus which, despite its name, is not restricted to Wales, but also found in Southern England and the Midlands. It is smaller and less ‘hairy’ than the other chafers and can be recognised by the single large ‘claws’ on the end of its legs.

Welsh Chafer, Hoplia philanthus. Image Credit: Neil Stanworth

Eleanor and her father kindly sent us this picture of a Welsh Chafer they caught in their garden in the Midlands recently using a pitfall trap they made after watching Kate’s video from a few weeks ago. We’d love to see pictures of beetles and other insects you have found.

Some chafers are a striking green colour. One of these is the Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata) which flies between May and October. Gardeners may consider it as a pest, particularly if they grow roses, because the beetles feed on their plants but, like the other chafers, these beetles are also important recyclers.

Noble Chafer, Gnorimus nobilis. Image credit: Flickr/Gail Hampshire CC BY 2.0

Another green chafer is the Noble Chafer (Gnorimus nobilis). You can tell the two apart because the Rose Chafer has smooth wing cases but the Noble Chafer has wrinkled ones and is metallic green with white speckles. While adult Noble Chafers feed on plants like hogweed, the larvae live in the decaying wood of old fruit trees. Because of this, the Noble Chafer is found in traditional orchards. As these have disappeared, so has this beautiful beetle which is now rare and a priority species under the UK biodiversity framework.

So, look out for chafers this summer and send us pictures of the ones you find. You may even come across one that’s quite rare!

Cartooning with Chris

Here at Crunchy on the Outside we love insects and we also love cartoons. What could be better, then, than cartoon insects?!

In this video Chris Jarvis shows us how to draw a mighty dung beetle called the Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) complete with its own ball of dung!

Minotaur beetles grow to about 2cm in length and can be seen between September and July. They live in grassland and heathland with sandy soils. They feed on rabbit droppings and other dung (yum!) which they roll into balls and bury them in nests which can be over a metre deep underground. Male beetles may defend these nests using their long horns. The females lay their eggs in these nests. The eggs then hatch and the larvae feed on the tasty dung!

Watch the video carefully and you will see that Chris has included many of the key features of this fascinating beetle. He has deliberately left one insect feature out of his drawing. Can you spot what is missing? Here’s a clue: they help insects sense their environment.

Let us know what you think is missing by commenting below, or sending us a message using the Contact Us page. We’d also love to see you own cartoon insects!

Helen Roy’s Favourite Ladybirds

Professor Helen Roy, President of the Royal Entomological Society, tells us about a group of insects that interest her most: ladybirds. Also known as ladybugs, ladybirds are in fact beetles. In this video, Helen shares three of her favourites.

Helen Roy shares her favourite ladybirds

Which ladybirds have you spotted? Can you find any of Helen’s favourites? Do you have a favourite of your own? Let us know in the comments section below, or send us a message via the Contact Us page.

Ladybird images credit: Flickr / Gilles San Martin CC BY-SA 2.0