We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations. I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks looking at the flowers and the wildlife. I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries. So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.
One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife. There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.
One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies. I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables. Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along. It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below. With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour. I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone. An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.
When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border. This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible. When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!
I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers. Here are some of the species I saw:
But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers. When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly. The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest. The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look. Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches. As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings. This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era. The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.
Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her. There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps. They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head. They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange. One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops. After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs. The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.
I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences. First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here. In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard. Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border. I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them: growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden; also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.
My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here