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The brief life of the butterfly, one of Nature’s most beautiful winged creatures

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about butterflies originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Butterflies, picture, image, illustration

A montage of butterflies including the Green Birdwing butterfly

Carterocephalus palaemon silvicolus, what an ugly and cumbersome name for such a beautiful and delicate creature as a butterfly. But this is only one of the names naturalists have given to the 70 different kinds of butterfly in Britain. It is also classified under the general heading of “lepidoptera” which means “scale wings.” The life of a butterfly can be divided into four stages, first the egg, then the caterpillar, next the chrysalis and finally, the fully-fledged butterfly.

The majority of our butterfly species pass the winter as eggs or pupae. They tend to find places such as hollow trees, barns or any other solitary place where they can rest undisturbed. One of the most wonderful things about butterflies is the way they have developed “eye-spots.” These are small decorations which are designed to attract birds and other predators. But the “eye-spots” are on the margin of a butterfly’s wings so that its attacker is lured away from the more vital parts of the butterfly’s anatomy.

The larvae or caterpillars are plant-feeders and they often feed in exposed places on the leaves. Many of the large white butterfly family, pieris brassicae, can do untold damage to the foliage of a small fruit tree.

The butterfly and moth are unusual in that their mouth-openings take the form of a slender sucking-tube called the proboscis. The extension of the proboscis takes place when the insect happens to be in the vicinity of nectar or some other sweet substance. In a way, it is almost like the elephant’s trunk, but on a much tinier scale.

Instances have been known of large swarms of butterflies alighting on the deck of a ship 300 miles out at sea. Experts are unable to agree whether the butterfly is capable of such a sustained flight or whether a hurricane drove them out into the ocean.

All “lepidopetera” link the front and hind wings in some way so that they are able to work together. Most of our butterfly population is concentrated in the warmer southern counties but there are two species which live in northern England – the Mountain ringlet and the Scotch argus.

It is often thought that a particular species restricts itself to one area, because of its liking for one special plant food. The Nymphalidae is the largest family of British butterflies and contains perhaps the noblest of all butterflies, the Purple Emperor. Sadly, it seems that the Purple Emperor, along with the Red Admiral, is thought to be in danger of extinction, due to the excessive use of insecticides and the widespread cutting down of hedgerows.

The life of a butterfly is a brief one and we should all strive to preserve it as long as possible.

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