Tattered and Torn

Two Blues (below) approaching the end of the road.

Sometimes, when you see a butterfly fly by, you can tell it’s newly emerged by the intensity of its colour. But not always. You frequently only realise a butterfly’s condition when you see it through the lens. And even more so when viewed on the computer screen. When you see just how tattered and torn some individual butterflies are, it can come as a surprise that they’re still capable of flight.

The faded Dark Green Fritillary (above) was still flying around with most of its right forewing missing.

The spiky defence of many downland plants must be part of the reason why butterflies, like the Chalkhill Blue (below), end up so damaged. Fluttering in amongst all that thistly undergrowth is bound to produce some serious wear and tear.

But predation – or attempted predation – contributes too.

It looks like a beak took a chunk out of the Wall Brown’s left hindwing (above). But again, you wouldn’t know it was damaged by the way it was flying. Perhaps Natural Selection incorporated a certain amount of wing area redundancy to allow for typical levels of damage in a butterfly’s life.

Butterflies are tough. One or two of them migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles. Some find hidey-holes to survive freezing winters. Others, like the Common Blues (below) last only a few short weeks in summer. Over the course of their brief, busy lives, their appearance changes with the wear and tear.

Typically, with the female Common, the patina on their wings becomes more misty and metallic-looking as they lose their wing scales. They also gradually lose their white fringe as the edge of their wings wears away.

From the strong dark brown of the freshly emerged female (top left) through the metallic blue mistiness (top middle and top right) to the dulled down parchment-like effect (bottom left) and damaged wings (bottom right).

When colours fade and fringes wear away, it can be difficult to identify a species. As in the two pictures below. Below left: with colour faded and its white fringe gone, is this a worn male Adonis or a Common Blue? And below right: with no fringe, is this a warn female Adonis or Chalkhill Blue whose few orange dots at the base of her hindwings have faded, or a faded and fringe-less Small Blue? The picture was taken on July 8th which is about right for the end of the first emergence of Adonis Blues, maybe a little early for a Chalkhill Blue and slightly late for the period you’d expect to see the first emergence of Small Blues (Butterfly Conservation Website).

Not sure how you would make a positive ID of either. But whatever species they are – and even as they are, warn and faded – they still have a delicate beauty of their own.

And seriously warn and damaged butterflies still have the drive to reproduce.

All the white fringe of male Common Blue (above) has warn away. His wings are thin and torn. But he still seems to be attractive to that less damaged female who hasn’t flown away yet. Maybe the fact that he’s a survivor and still up for it, no matter how bruised and battered, indicates good genes. Retirement is not, it would seem, in a Common Blue’s vocabulary.

There’s a kind of nobility about butterflies, the way they struggle on till the very last. You occasionally see one, at the end of the day, roosting on a piece of dead grass, and you sense from their utterly warn-out appearance that they won’t be flying again in the morning. But then maybe they will. Butterflies continue to surprise with the way they carry on even when they’re in pieces physically. Perhaps, more than any other animal group, they represent the force of life itself.

Photographing Butterflies – the Learning Curve

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