Barbara Claridge finds opportunity for discovery in a simple garden experiment.
Vanessas’ Diary 9th – 16th September 2017
I’m wondering where the butterflies shelter when the September sky clouds and cold heavy rain falls suddenly. Each so strong drop might pierce the wing of such a pretty thing. Like showers in April, the rain stops too soon, abruptly. The wind shifts a little and the sky clears to a brilliant powder blue with a white cirrus fringe, and one butterfly is back.
This morning I have laid out some rotting peaches on the railway sleeper edging to the terrace, where I can sit close and observe butterfly behaviour. First is the red admiral, resplendent in black uniform with bright orange epaulets and white flashing. Another lands and another flitters. There is no way to describe their flying; it is so determinedly random. They seem intoxicated, fascinated by the treat.
Now a comma all aquiver. It is like having my own butterfly garden with free entry. These European commas are no less exotic than those species who need a hot house and tropical food plants, and here close watching is easy. Why seek out a rare passerine or golden oriel to bird watch when a blackbird would do just as well? In fact, I have begun to think there is much to be gained from watching pigeons, those birds most despised by gardeners. Instead see what a few rotting peaches can do for you.
In quick succession, I have four read admirals, the comma and a peacock, which is somewhat faded against the bright, new-hatched look of the admirals. I spectate at a fashion show as they parade the peach walk and pump their wings, piercing at the flesh and tube-up the sticky syrup.
Look closely and the admiral’s body is the colour of a brown bear pelt and the only black is under the white wingtip markings.
The different species do not interact and skilfully avoid each other’s feeding space. It has been like this for days ever since I had the idea of the peach experiment – the same group it seems. Today’s rain has made the juices runny. Aimless green and black flies crawl over the edges of the fruit. They quiver-fly in drunken circles then fall on the gravel, never still.
The peacock moves to land upon a glistening blade of grass nearby – needing a drink I muse? He rests a while, wings now folded, so that, edge-on, he looks just like a blade of darker grass.
I wonder what I will find feeding on the last of the lavender on the other side of the garden.
The butterflies return when the peaches have been streamed in sunlight. Today the sky is filled with alto-cirrus and lower, faster travelling thin cumulus. It is 13 degrees C. My diary experiment has led to questions not answers. How do butterflies smell? How far can they smell? Can the wind knock them off scent targets? The clouds are building, can they sense the rain?
A second day watch and the wind is strong from the south west. The wind chimes clatter in the peach tree out of tune, but in tempo with the wind. I needn’t have bothered to buy them as the metal fat-ball hooks and swinging empty bird feeders clank and echo out of tune against each other.
More ugly flies are attracted to the shrinking shells of peach flesh and the stones, drupes, are more exposed, stripped clean and now a lighted brown in colour.
See, a comma returns, but a new hatch, with sharp waves to wing-edge and brighter orange scales.
Every so often my peripheral vision is caught by a quick movement against gravel or stone. But no. A turning leaf mimics a butterfly while the real ones cling fast with tail and open wings into the wind direction, sunning themselves. Vivid patches of hot sunlight alternate with chill of cloud.
This morning, in an experiment of childhood returned, I made up a saturated solution of cane sugar syrup and poured it over the peaches to make them even sweeter. I kept a small volume of the brown sticky liquid and three quarter filled a white china ramekin which I put on the step by the door. This was to test if the peaches or the sugar syrup had more attraction for the butterflies. However, up to this point I have only attracted the wasp brigade and an army of tiny brown ants to the peaches and no additional butterflies.
Wait and watch a while longer. Before the end of the day I moved the ramekin away from the step and onto the sleeper next to the fruit bait.
First red admiral arrives. The day is bright and cool at 12 degrees C. The peaches on the sleeper begin to look like gnarled prunes and my experiment has gone very wrong. In the bright early light the white ramekin contrasts so starkly against the black of the wooden sleeper. Last night it was part full of sugar syrup solution and a drowning wasp. Now it is completely empty with two dead flies lying upside down in the bottom. What has drunk the syrup? In the absence of any slime trail or other evidence my best guess is hedgehog. But every drop has gone in the night? Maybe a mouse party?
The wings of the two flies are stuck down on the empty base but I see their legs twitch and I feel I must release what I trapped. I knock the china against the hollow wood and the flies fall out, damp but alive. Within seconds they rub their legs dry and disappear. A wasp comes drinking, but the syrup is gone and the peach not to his liking so he goes elsewhere in the garden for sweeter fare.
Rain. I use my butterfly time to research some butterfly facts in Collins Butterfly Guide – The Most Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Europe, wondering why any author might write a least complete guide.
The Red Admiral, Peacock and Comma all belong to the Nymphalidae family and collectively form part of the group of butterflies known as Vanessids, but only the red admiral has Vanessa as her prename. Vanessa atalanta, such a stately name, is fitting for such a large power dresser. The larval host plant for all three is the common stinging nettle which grow in abundance around the perimeter of my garden in Brittany. All three species can overwinter as hibernating adults, and the comma and peacock feed in early spring on salix (willow) blossom which again I have growing in the talus ditch and in a woven semi-circle bower, which is in urgent need of reweaving and clipping at this time of year. This wet day is proving to be very valuable in my butterfly study week, allowing me time to put together old ideas and new facts to test against real observations.
The peaches are shrivelled. It is a cold 10 degrees C this morning. September morning shadows are visibly lengthening and the light is changing colour. Around the autumn equinox the transit arc of the sun’s elevation is lowering, fast shortening the days. No creatures except two watching cats. A family of late blackbirds scooters across the wet lawn, flying low between the shrubs looking for wet worms and young snails in shells soft enough to swallow whole.
By 11:21 the three red admirals are back, proboscis prodding and nectaring the disintegrating peach halves. Could they be the same butterflies each day?
By observing closely, I have found that the flies and wasps strip away layers of the fruit, hoovering the surface with a tube that seems to be a ‘mouth’, whereas the butterflies just suck out the juice. Flies are not attractive creatures to me. They twitch about across the peach surface and make the skin on the back of my neck itch just watching them. Yet their wings are of such translucent fabric, delicate in its own way, but held stiffly behind their bodies like black organdie glued to a fine wire edge. One lands on my toe and I feel no sensation.
There have been no butterfly feeders this afternoon. The cat weather vane points due west into a light breeze and I think this may be the end of my butterfly watch.
Fine rain all day
The peach remains are no longer of interest to any creature. When the sun does come out, the bright yellow dahlias in the border draw in the peacocks; the red admirals and comma are gone. Wait a moment, my attention is grabbed by three beautiful violet carpenter bees on that yellow dahlia ……..
Watch the Vanessids here: https://youtu.be/B-ukWk79i0g
Barbara Claridge has just completed the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex as a full time student. Following a long career as Headteacher of a Hampshire junior school, where outdoor learning was a passion, she moved to Brittany with her husband and began a five-year renovation/construction project of a longère and garden. She has also worked with the British Council in Beijing and Pittsburgh on the International Headteacher Programme and completed short-term voluntary projects as a Primary Education Adviser in Ghana and Namibia. She tweets @56190bjc