You might think the big, blousy aristocrats of the butterfly world would make good photographic subjects. It hasn’t really worked out that way for me. And I’m not sure why. I thought it might be something to do with having seen them all my life and being so familiar with them that they felt a bit dull, but then I’ve seen Cabbage Whites since I was knee-high as well and I’ve found them to be a revelation through a zoom lens. Maybe I just haven’t worked out how to do the Aristocrats justice yet.
The family is made up of the colourful species most of us know from the Buddleia bushes in parks and gardens: the Peacock, the Red Admiral, the Comma and the Small Tortoiseshell (the Large Tortoiseshell was considered extinct in the UK by the 1960s), and three other species, the Painted Lady, the White Admiral and the Purple Emperor.
The two pictures above show the difference between a faded, overwintered Peacock and an almost fluorescently bright, freshly-emerged example four months later. The Peacock must be the most colourful of all butterflies found in the UK.
The Red Admiral is apparently doing well nationally though we don’t see so many of them here. We went almost an entire summer, a couple of years ago, without seeing a single one.
A Comma (above, left) waiting for the sun. This one had taken up residence on our drive. The same individual (above, right), a month later, a bit faded and warn. They seem to me to be amongst the most territorial of butterflies, sticking to their area for weeks. We had another at the other end of the garden who was just as territorial. They seem sometimes to come up to have a look at you, maybe to satisfy themselves you’re not a threat. Or maybe they just like to know what’s going on.
While other “Aristocrats” are given flamboyant names like Peacock and Red Admiral, the Comma is endearingly named after the small white mark on the underside of its wing: a diminutive little punctuation mark (above).
A Totoiseshell (above), at rest on a fairy’s arm in our overgrown back garden.
Another tortoiseshell, face and lower body covered in pollen, drinking deep from the Valerian well, and with a much hairier back than I’d imagined.
The most photogenic of the Aristocrats, for me, is the Painted Lady. They migrate to the UK from as far away as Africa, sometimes in great numbers, sometimes not so much. This year was a good year for Painted Ladies.
Some of them, when freshly emerged, have vivid orange colouring (below) almost as intense as a Fritillary or a Tortoiseshell.
Others – most of them – have colouring that appears more washed out.
A less vivid example (above), perched on a large shrub planted by the Ministry of Defence on Salisbury Plain to create a new habitat for their soldiers to train in (apparently true).
I took a series of shots in June of one particular individual – the first of the year’s arrivals that I had come across – whose wings had been a little damaged, I guessed, during its long flight over. Painted Ladies can sometimes be a bit flighty, but this one went from one Valerian flower to another for several minutes, apparently drinking nectar non-stop and oblivious to my constant snapping. I imagined it was recharging its batteries after an exhausting flight. I particularly like the subtle colouring of their underwing, which reminds me of the earthy colours and patterns of man’s early cave paintings. This, combined with their big mottled eyes, weird mouth parts and delightful hairy legs make them another favourite.
There are two other species in the Aristocrat family, the White Admiral and the Purple Emperor. Both are woodland species. The white Admiral has declined in recent years, and the purple emperor is not common. I’ve never positively identified either species, but I did once see a large butterfly in Savernake Forest which I’m pretty sure was one or the other. I noticed it had a distinctive flight – a lot of gliding with one or two strong wing-flaps in between – and I’ve since learned that this is characteristic of the White Admiral. But Savernake Forest is not a site which is known locally for White Admirals, whereas it is known for Purple Emperors. So I’m still none the wiser.
I have a feeling it probably was a Purple Emperor. But that may be because I’d like to be able say I’ve seen one. They spend most of their time high in the canopy and so they are rarely seen by chance. I’ve read that some of the keener lepidopterists put out meat for them, which can, apparently, tempt these beautiful purple butterflies down from the tree tops.
Who knows, I may be out there with a pork chop one day.