How you can help save Devon’s butterflies

A small tortoiseshell butterfly, pictured in Devon. Photo: Wendy Newing

A small tortoiseshell butterfly, pictured in Devon. Photo: Wendy Newing - Credit: Wendy Newing

Butterfly numbers are in decline but there are ways you can help grow their Devon population

Some small tortoiseshell butterflies photographedin Devon by Wendy Newing soon after emerging from

Some small tortoiseshell butterflies photographedin Devon by Wendy Newing soon after emerging from their chysalises - Credit: Archant

Butterflies are beautiful and I have never grown out of my childhood passion for keeping caterpillars and releasing them as newly metamorphosed butterflies back into their original habitat.

This can actually help the caterpillars, or larvae, as the mortality rate in the wild is extremely high. In captivity, with proper care, a massively increased percentage survival rate is guaranteed.

Last year, from a batch of small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars, I released 99 adult butterflies back into the wild. I counted the empty chrysalises after release.

A peacock butterfly in Devon. Photo: Wendy Newing

A peacock butterfly in Devon. Photo: Wendy Newing - Credit: Wendy Newing

Their life can be measured in days, a few weeks, or extended by months spent in hibernation.

Insecticides, loss of habitat and wet and cold weather have decimated our butterfly populations. We can help them by growing particular plants in our gardens. This provides them with a safe habitat in which to breed.

Caterpillars have very specific food plant requirements. For example brimstones will only eat buckthorn leaves and will starve if this is not available. Stinging nettles are the favoured nursery for the larvae of red admirals, painted lady, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma butterflies. Every butterfly garden needs a nice patch of these useful plants for their caterpillars to feast upon.

A green-veined white butterfly y feeding on ragged-robin. Photo: Wendy Newing

A green-veined white butterfly y feeding on ragged-robin. Photo: Wendy Newing - Credit: Wendy Newing

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Flowering blooms provide nectar for the adults. Obvious favourites are buddleia, hebe, ligustrum and syringa among the shrubs. Small plants such as michaelmas daisies, ice plants, welted thistle, hemp agrimony, delphinium, golden rod and marigolds are all extraordinary lures for butterflies. Their colours and scents act as a beacon, drawing these insects to your garden from a wide radius.

To care for caterpillars in safe conditions, whenever possible it is a good idea to have the whole food plant growing in a pot in the container where you keep the larvae, or a regular supply of its clean fresh leaves.

A simple breeding cage can be constructed from a wooden frame of 60x44x30 cm, covered in very fine black mesh netting to exclude tiny parasitic wasps from laying their eggs in the bodies of caterpillars and killing them. A piece of hardboard can be cut to size and nailed to the floor of the cage to provide a firm base. The advantage of this set-up is that when butterflies emerge from the pupal casing no harm can come to them. Alternatively, such box cages can be purchased ready–made from businesses like Worldwide Butterflies in Dorset.

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Newly-hatched larvae are very delicate and the only way to handle them is by picking them up on the tip of a very fine artists’ paint brush. Transfer them to the food plant. The larvae are eating machines. Once they have eaten their fill they will pupate. They will find a suitable place, some species of moths burrow underground, some butterflies find a safe place in amongst vegetation, while others make a cocoon in the leaves of the plant upon which they have been feeding. The individual requirements of each species can soon be looked-up in a book on Lepidoptera or via the internet. Once in the pupa stage there are several points to be remembered when it comes to their care. Pupae dry out if they are not kept moist, whereas the larvae get diseased if they are kept damp. If the pupae dry out the butterflies either die or they emerge crippled by deformed wings. The best method is to use an inexpensive plant spray bottle and give them a fine misting of tepid bottled spring water each morning and late afternoon. The even moisture from this will soak through the pupal casing into the body of the insect itself. Tap water may contain chemicals that can be harmful to their development.

Unless it is an overwintering specimen most hatch within four weeks. So if you have pupae in the spring or summer you will not have long to wait.

After the butterfly emerges it is best to release in the location where the caterpillar was collected as soon as the wings have dried out. It is important once they emerge that their wings do not get stuck on any surfaces, as they are very wet and sticky at this stage. Those that have pupated on their food plant, on stems, or the mesh of their cage should be fine. Upon emergence, they can clamber up these and hang there while their wings fill and dry. Not all moths feed but all butterflies possess a proboscis (tongue) and require food in the form of nectar. It is an idea to feed them before they leave, by providing them with their first feed on nectar bearing flowers, or you could provide a substitute of honey or sugar, mixed in solution with a little warm water.

Once it is cool and fully dissolved the mixture can be used soaked into a small pad of cotton wool and placed in a shallow dish, or held close to the proboscis of the insect. It is a lovely feeling when one of these delicate little creatures rests on the palm of your hand, sucking at its ‘breakfast’ before you release it, as one more colourful jewel into our lovely countryside.

Photographing butterflies

Butterflies are easier to photograph in the early morning before they warm up, or when newly emerged, as their wings expand and dry before their first flight. When approaching a butterfly never cast your shadow over it, or it will take flight immediately.

They are best photographed frontlit by the sun and with your camera’s sensor parallel to its wings. Butterflies tend to return to flowers to feed in a regular pattern of visits. If you see one leave a flower, wait patiently for its possible return. Don’t chase them. Macro lenses or macro camera modes are great for photographing them, but a zoom lens is a great alternative. It also means that you can shoot from a distance which will not disturb your subject. Happy shooting!

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