Butterflies ride the airwaves

This year, British butterflies have done better than ever – in terms of media coverage! You may have followed the journeys of Steven Moss in The Guardian’s Environment Blog on his mission to see every British butterfly in one season.

Duke of Burgundy

Earlier today I was listening live to Matthew Oates on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, announcing that the Duke of Burgundy has been appearing in August – a strange phenomenon. Normally this is a spring butterfly.

Duke of Burgundy (upper side, male)

Duke of Burgundy (upper side, male)

“They are little spitfires, they fly at anything that comes into their territory. This year we’ve watched Duke of Burgundy chase Chalkhill Blue, the quintessential butterfly of late summer,” he said.

Matthew explained that during recent years they have been emerging earlier and earlier at a few sites… April, rather than May. This presents the opportunity to start again, burst from their pupae which usually overwinter, and enjoy a second brood.

This happens on the continental Europe but is an unexpected occurence here. It had not happened since the late 1893 in the British Isles, until 2005 and 2007 at Selbourne, Hampshire – and now a second brood is flying at Rodborough Common, Gloucestershire – the furthest north a second brood has ever been recorded.

The question is, will this become a trend or is this still a once-in-a-century event? And if it is a trend, will the second wave exhaust this rare butterfly, taking tiny Duke of Burgundy colonies closer to extinction, or will it be advantageous, and enable it to exploit a more flexible ecological niche?

The Large Blue story

Yesterday I listened to the tale of how the Large Blue became extinct in Britain (officially announced in 1979) and how it was successfully reintroduced. The story is fascinating because of the intimate relationship between the Large Blue and its host/prey meadow ant, upon which it depends. To bring back the butterfly, nature conservationists had to restore grassland habitat to suit the ants!

Listen Again on Radio 4
Nature, series 3, episode 1, the Large Blue story.

Jason Ball at Natureheads.com

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