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Slow Views

The butterflies have a message for us

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Their brief existence and their perceived fragility is a sermon on the nature of beauty and life. How sad that 76 per cent of the UK’s resident and migratory butterfly species are in decline – with all that has to say about the future of the planet


“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature.” That was Charles Darwin in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker. Such a chaplain could write about the loa loa worms of Africa that make their homes in the eyes of children and make them blind, or the insects that anaesthetise their prey to create a living larder for the offspring, or just the wasps, bees and mosquitoes of an English country garden.

And then there are butterflies. 

Butterflies make believers of us all, if only for an instant. Their beauty is so easy and obvious it seems almost absurd: as if they were created entirely to please the eyes of humans by passing from one beautiful flower to the next and making it still lovelier. 

Butterflies, like everything else that lives, are the products of the inexorable process of evolution by natural selection, but they seem more like to be the work of the unambiguously sentimental god of the hymn-writer Mrs CF Alexander: “He made their glowing colours, he made their tiny wings.” She was writing about birds, but the line works better for butterflies. 

The colours of butterfly wings enable them to recognise each other so they can mate with the right species; there are also many examples of butterfly colouration as bluff: the eye-patterns of the wings of the peacock butterfly allow the creature to imitate a little owl; it adds to the impression by rubbing its wings together to produce a realistic little-owl hiss. 

I have just counted 50 butterflies on a single buddleia bush: there seemed more butterflies than blossoms, so they sometimes had to share: mostly red admirals and peacocks, but at the summit I found a few painted ladies. These are butterflies that travel all the way from Africa to be with us; in a good year they fly as far north as the Arctic Circle. Who says butterflies are fragile?

And if that was not enough, there is the miracle of their metamorphosis: their transition from lowly cryptic caterpillars to glorious many-coloured aeronauts. The change from pupa to full adult or imago is technically known as imagination. It is a classic image of the transition from the cares of earthly life to the untrammelled joys of the promised life to come.

The Greek word for soul is psyche – which also means butterfly. This double-meaning tells us something of what butterflies have meant to humans across the millennia: something that seems to go far beyond nature and acquaints us directly with god and the heavens…. and if God made butterflies he must be good and kind, despite all the wasps and hornets and the daily horrors of existence.

There is a Roman sculpture of a butterfly leaving a man’s mouth at the moment of death. In the Ancient Egyptian tomb of Nebamun you can recognise images of the African monarch butterfly. The Aztecs believed butterflies were the souls of dead warriors. In Japan a butterfly in your house means that you will have a visit from the person you love most. The great Taoist Chuang Tzu, who died in 289 BC, dreamt he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered if he was no more than a butterfly’s dream.

Butterflies are so universally accepted as beautiful that it seems almost incongruous – perhaps even rather impertinent – to consider them as insects: that between the four generous wings that every adult butterfly possesses there is a three-sectioned body that on its own might be considered ugly, and certainly nothing more than brutishly functional. 

There are no hard and fast distinctions between butterflies and moths: both belong to the order Lepidoptera, which means, rather disappointingly, “scaly-winged”. There are about 200,000 species worldwide. In this country there are 59 species of regularly breeding butterflies.

In adult form they live for as little as a week or as much as a year; some species like the peacock over-winter as adults in a form of suspended animation called diapause. Their ephemeral nature only adds to their fascination: their brief existence and their perceived fragility is a sermon on the nature of beauty and life. They take no solid food as adults. Their way of life is to compartmentalise their appetites: as caterpillars they eat and grow; as adults they seek only to make more butterflies.

As adults – as butterflies – they subsist on a liquid diet. For most of them the first choice is nectar, like the visitors to my buddleia, but many butterflies will feed avidly on rotten fruit, dung and decaying flesh: we have all been perplexed by the apparent contradiction of the butterfly on the fresh dog-turd. Butterfly enthusiasts create foul-smelling concoctions, often involving fermented shrimp-paste, to lure down from the canopy the lovely purple emperor.

One of the strange things about butterflies is the lack of folk-names. There are any amount of folk-names for birds, but for the most part we are content with just one name for all butterflies. This probably came about from the brimstone, which is yellow, the colour of sulphur (or brimstone) – and butter. The species appears good and early in the year and seems to have given its name to all the rest: a little pat of the best butter seeking out the best of the spring flowers. 

Though some argue that brimstone, admiral and belladonna (for painted lady) are folk-names, the fact is that for centuries no one saw any real point in trying to tell one butterfly from another. They were just butterflies and gorgeous: who needed to know more?

James Petiver did. He died in 1718 after inventing a lot of common names that are still current: hairstreak, fritillary, tortoiseshell, argus. These names were eagerly taken up by the Aurelian Society, which was formed in the 18th century with a remit to learn more: about butterflies and about the way that life works. This was, after all, the Enlightenment. 

Here in the Aurelians’ study of butterflies was a simultaneous joining and sundering of art and science. Butterflies were captured, killed, collected and displayed in cabinets that showed the various nature of their beauties; this could be done on an aesthetic or scientific agenda. They could be enjoyed for their loveliness alone, as a way of loving God’s creation; they could also be analysed and investigated. 

Why butterflies? They are obvious and obviously beautiful, and you don’t need modern high-quality optics to appreciate living examples in detail, as you do with birds, just a net (though modern butterfly hunters use a camera). With growing urbanisation people turned to nature as never before, and for many people, collecting butterflies was at the heart of it.

And when collection mania strikes, it is easy to get carried away. Walter Rothschild had a collection of 2.25 million butterflies. Part of this was sold to pay off a blackmailing mistress, but the rest went to what is now the Natural History Museum, the largest ever such bequest. Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain were both butterfly-collectors.

This enthusiasm helped to create local and national declines and extinctions. Butterfly species lost from Britain included large blue, large tortoiseshell and large copper. Collectors can’t take all the blame for this; the country and the countryside were changing with agricultural and industrial revolutions, growing populations and urban spread.

Some of the effects of such changes are massive and obvious: others are subtle, insidious and often unnoticed. How does nature respond to the changes we make to the natural world? It’s hard to measure such responses by counting the numbers of wood-boring beetles, because they are very hard to find and once found, even harder to identify. 

But there are groups of species which can, by their presence and their absence, impart certain important truths about the environment. If there are major predators present, it is a prima facie indication that the rest of the ecosystem is functioning. 

Butterflies can tell us different truths in a similar way. For a start they are easy to see, and pretty easy to identify. They can only exist if there are the right plants to feed caterpillars and nectar sources to fuel adults. More than that, they tell us that the environment is suitable for insects: you don’t find many butterflies when an ecosystem is saturated with herbicides and insecticides. 

If we are losing butterflies, it is a fair assumption that we are losing many other kinds of insects. So here is a stat: 76 per cent of the UK’s resident and migratory butterfly species are in decline, in terms of both numbers and of places where they can be found. 

So that’s a shame. But does it really matter? Here’s Sir David Attenborough: “If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would go on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear the world’s ecosystems would collapse.”

We are losing butterflies because we are damaging and destroying the places where they live. Butterflies can’t live in a wheat monoculture any more than they can live in a multi-storey car-park. The good butterfly habitat we have left tends to be fragmented: when the distance between habitats is too great there can be no interchange and reinvigoration. An island habitat may be lovely but it is doomed – if it remains an island. 

The use of herbicides kills the plants that butterflies need to get through their time as caterpillars; for four species – red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma – nettles are an important food plant. Insecticides kill far more than their target species. 

And we can get an idea of what is happening to all those vital invertebrates that pollinate our crops (every third mouthful of food we take in requires the action of pollinators), aerate the soil, operate the system of decay and enrich and maintain the living environment when we count the butterflies.

The NGO Butterfly Conservation operates an annual Big Butterfly Count, a citizen science project that gathers and collates figures of butterfly sightings, revealing in the course of time the long-term trends. Few of these are encouraging.

But let us consider Jeremy Thomas, who spent most of his summers in the 1970s listening to Test Match Special to keep himself going while he studied the large blue butterfly. As John Arlott described the distant scene – “that ball went through Boycott’s defence like a bullet through a hole in a Henry Moore” – so Thomas worked out the extraordinary relationship between Mymirca ants and the butterflies, which as caterpillars persuade ants to take them into their nests, where they stay for two years, growing and eating ants. They get out by making a noise like an ant queen, and the ants lovingly escort them to the exit.

By 1979 the large blue was extinct in Britain. But the bizarre and complex life of the large blue had been unravelled, and as a result there have been successful reintroductions; try Collard Hill in Somerset.

The NGO Buglife runs a programme called B-Lines, in which roadside verges, field margins and other important sites are managed for wild flowers: these link up those island sites as well as providing a habitat in their own right. There are grants available for farmers to leave generous field margins where insects can live.

The grave of Spike Milligan bears in Irish the message: “I told you I was ill”. Conservationists have been prophesying the death of nature and the consequent collapse of civilisation since the 1950s, when we first began to realise that nature was not, after all, infinite. The prophecies of doom get more obviously correct with every passing year, and still we find it hard to get people to even listen, let alone act. The prospect of saying “I told you so” is, as Spike demonstrates, a small consolation.

The shortage of butterflies is something that everyone can notice and everyone must mourn. It can be considered an invitation to understand that we really are killing nature, that this affects you personally and it is making your own life less enjoyable. Perhaps the universal wonder that butterflies inspire will help to drive the measures that are necessary if they and all the other invertebrate species are to survive and maintain the world’s ecosystems.

The large tortoiseshell is a fine butterfly, once common in this country. It went extinct in the 1960s, partly because of the loss of elm trees, an important food plant. In 2020 in Dorset, evidence was found of a breeding colony: eggshells and larva skins. Adults have been observed in the same place this year. It is one of those events in the natural world that seem nothing less than miraculous.

That leaves us with one big question, and it is the biggest question of them all. Is it really possible to put the toothpaste back into the tube?

Simon Barnes is a journalist and author, previously working at the Times both as its chief sports writer and as a wildlife columnist.