Sunday in the orchard with butterflies

It was still early when I looked out of the back window.   I had expected a clear morning but, instead, a veil of grey mist lay across the eastern hills.  The line of mist seemed to follow the course of the river Dart hidden beneath the lower town, softening and lending an air of mystery to the view.     A hazy orange glow emerged above the line of mist gradually shading into a clear, translucent blue sky.  This orange dawn light reminded me of one of the species of the butterfly about at this time of year.  The French call these butterflies “l’aurore”, (the dawn) and the Germans refer to them as “Aurorafalter”, (the dawn butterfly).  We English settle for the name “orange-tip butterfly” (from the bright orange wing tips of the male). 

Last year, during the first lockdown I found orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) in the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks.  The butterflies laid eggs on the garlic mustard growing along one of the borders, caterpillars developed and I presume they left chrysalises on vegetation in the car park.  Unfortunately, last December, the council carried out a “tidiness” raid on the Nursery Car Park cutting down most of the trees and all the plants and other vegetation, presumably destroying the chrysalises.  Some early spring flowers did grow but in the third week of April the “tidiness brigade” returned and strimmed the borders again.  This included destroying a bank of flowering three-cornered garlic that was popular with female hairy-footed flower bees last year.  I don’t bother to look in the Nursery Car Park now.

The male orange-tip butterfly is one of the clear signs that the new season has arrived and, at this time of year, they can be seen meandering about the countryside searching for females.  In flight, they mostly appear white making them awkward to distinguish from other “white” butterflies although hints of the orange wing tips can sometimes be seen.  This year, I had seen several of the males in different places around the town despite the markedly cool weather.  I had only seen one female so, last Sunday afternoon, with sunshine forecast, I decided to have another attempt at finding orange-tip females, this time in an orchard on the western side of Totnes.

Colwell Wood is owned by the Woodland Trust and located a short distance up Harper’s Hill.  It occupies a sloping site with good views towards Dartmoor and was planted nearly 25 years ago.  Now there is an area of woodland with a good selection of broadleaf native trees and an orchard stocked with heritage fruit trees: apple, plum, pear, cherry, medlar and mulberry.

A mature horse chestnut tree greeted me when I walked through the wooden gate off Harper’s Hill into Colwell Wood.   The tree was covered in floppy lime-green leaves and there were plenty of white candle-like flowers flecked with pink.  The woodland area is a short distance away and, with the trees now fairly mature, this a lovely spot.  A path took me through the rows of mature trunks, sunlight percolated through the partially leafed trees and above me a chiff chaff sang among branches that chattered as the breeze made them tremble.  The lesser celandine that had given the woodland floor a yellow sheen a few weeks ago were on their way out, the colour being replaced by a fulsome green growth with ferns unfurling and hogweed leaves spreading. 

Apple blossom in the orchard

The woodland ended and I walked a little way down the slope into the orchard, now a mass of flowers with most of the trees in blossom.  Apple predominated with its pink and white flowers and a steady stream of pollinators were visiting.  I saw bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies and above the trees a few St Mark’s flies.

I also began to see an intermittent passage of white butterflies across the orchard in the sunshine.  With their undulating, slightly uncertain flight these insects often remind me of fragments of paper blowing in the wind but here a better comparison would be with the pale petals of apple trees.  These were blowing about in the breeze and on more than one occasion I jumped thinking that a butterfly had passed me only to find it was just a fragment of apple blossom.    

Several species of butterfly appear white in flight, so it’s important to look carefully at individual characteristics to identify the species. Most of the “white” butterflies passing through the orchard that afternoon, though, were elusive and accelerated away when they saw me. Then two appeared dancing around one another in the air.  I watched, thinking this might have been a mating pair but one flew off leaving the other to land on some cow parsley.  I got a quick glimpse of orange as the butterfly landed so I knew this was a male orange-tip.  He tolerated me approaching and looking, even when I knelt down and inadvertently sat on a stinging nettle.  His wings were closed for most of the time, revealing the beautiful green and yellow mottled underwing patterns (see picture at the top of this post and also below).  Slight traces of orange bled into the pattern but the dominant mottling blended well with the colours of the cow parsley.  When he had finished feeding, he flew off giving me another quick flash of brash colour.

Then another “white” butterfly appeared and landed on one of the pear trees.  This insect fed with wings half open, also exhibiting the mottled underwing pattern characteristic of orange-tip butterflies.   It lacked the orange upper wing markings but in their place were black wing tips and spots showing this to be a female of the species.  I was able to watch for a while before she flew off.

My third close encounter with a “white” butterfly that afternoon occurred as one landed on apple blossom and rested with its wings closed.  The underwings of this individual were mostly yellowish green with a beautiful pattern of darker, radiating veins rather like the branches of a tree.  This was a green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi).

The weather changed, cloud covered the sun and the temperature fell a little.  The butterflies took this as a signal and I saw no more that afternoon but I returned a few days later on a sunny but rather windy day.  Walking through the woodland section, I came across several clumps of garlic mustard, the larval food plant of the orange-tip butterfly (and also the green-veined white).  I examined each plant carefully and very gently and was pleased to find one tiny, orange, ovoid structure attached just under the flower head on one flower stem (see pictures below).  This “mini rugby ball” was the egg of an orange-tip butterfly.  It has a much better chance of producing a new butterfly next year in this environment compared to those I saw last year in the Nursery Car Park.

Thanks to Dr Claudia Garrido who identified the medlar tree for me (see picture below).

Male orange-tip butterfly on cow parsley showing the mottled underwing pattern
Male orange-tip butterfly showing upper wings
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern and upper wing with black tips and spots
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern projecting through in the sunshine
Green-veined white butterfly
Garlic mustard showing the orange egg of the orange tip butterfly
Close up of the orange-tip butterfly egg
Flowers of the medlar tree

16 thoughts on “Sunday in the orchard with butterflies”

  1. Hi Philip,

    Lovely piece, thank you. So sad (and horribly common) about the massacre the council carried out on the Nursery Car Park. Was it a one-off, or a regular activity? Might they be amenable to leaving it wild if they understood the biodiversity it supports? Lots of cemeteries do this now, don’t they?

    All the best,

    Gill (Langley)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Gill, glad you liked the piece. I have added some more information below on my efforts to protect the car park.
      By the way, did you find the toothwort, you said you were going to look?

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  2. I enjoyed this read and its hunt for butterflies! I very much agree – and concord with with Gill – and think the council, with a little explaining, (and some worthy signatures?) might leave some strips of wildness; with a small sign ‘for the bees’ this might jog peoples’ memory that we need our pollinators… and that bushiness is good. The time of 1950s fashionable/suburban neatness and clipped lawns has surely gone. Failing that, I could threaten to expose them in the newspaper I write for perhaps. On the Camomile development in Bridgetown mowing has become a bit more sympathetic and I’ve noticed an enthusiastic band of ladies – volunteer stewards of sorts – has been planting and caring for the ‘insect and wildflower’ areas..

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    1. Thanks Miriam, glad you enjoyed the read. I’ve added some information below on my efforts to protect the car park banks. I agree that the fashion for neatness has shifted but I am not sure how to control the council gardeners. I think they are under pressure with a reduced workforce.

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  3. Makes me so sad reading about the tidiness brigade. Might be worth complaining to your council – I have heard they tend to receive more complaints about foliage not being cut enough, so your complaint might help tip the balance the other way.

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  4. My references to the local council and tidiness in the Nursery Car Park seem to have touched a nerve and I want to thank you for all your understanding and supportive comments.
    I need, though, to tell you the full story. Back in 2015, I began watching a colony of solitary bees in one of the grassy banks alongside the Nursery Car Park and I realised how much wildlife lived in these urban spaces. By 2017, I became convinced that something needed to be done about maintenance of the grassy banks to support wildlife. I approached the Totnes Town Council with a suggestion that the Nursery Car Park be designated a town centre Nature Reserve with regulated cutting etc. The Town Council were enthusiastic but the garden maintenance people were concerned that there might be complaints about untidiness. Despite this, one of the members of the Town Council took on the idea of the Nature Reserve as their project. An article even appeared in the Totnes Times describing the proposal with pictures of the car park banks. I was a little surprised to see no mention of my name in the article but soon got over that and offered to advise the councillor concerned. They didn’t respond and nothing happened in the Nursery Car Park with regard to the nature reserve idea, regulating cutting etc. I didn’t really know how to react and decided to drop the idea.
    Over the next few years, the council stopped cutting grass verges etc, the same applied to the town centre car parks and I attributed this to “austerity”. This lack of activity continued, understandably, during lockdown. So, I was surprised when the council swooped in December 2020 and cut so much down and even more surprised when they returned. It all feels rather random and unplanned and I am now not sure what to do?

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  5. Lovely photographs! I have been looking for eggs in my Honesty but I have never found them yet. I was saddened by the savage cutting near a car park. We have been upset lately by savage cutting of the sides of the streams near us. They use strong machinery attached to tractors that can cut vertically and horizontally leaving broken stumps and almost bare earth. The fields of maize and vines are expanding at the cost of these borders and hedges. France adheres to the EU advice to protect and renew hedges … on paper only. Amelia

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    1. Thanks Amelia, I have seen a few more eggs recently but all on garlic mustard and the almost incessant rain must be limiting the butterflies flying. Also, there doesnt seem to be much honesty growing around here. Sorry to hear about the savage hedge cutting, its a dreadful reflection on the human view of the non-human world.

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  6. You’d need a very careful eye to see that tiny egg. 😊 I love butterflies and admire the beauty of these species, unfamiliar to me. Your photos are delightful!

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    1. Thanks Debra, glad you liked the butterflies. Although the eggs are very small, the orange colour of the orange-tip butterfly eggs makes them easier to see. The eggs of other species are much more difficult to spot.

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      1. I thought of you today Philip, when a large bee, untypical in my garden, was hovering over a salvia plant. I think it was just what I’d call a humble “bumblebee” but you’ve taught me there are so many different species, now I’m more curious!

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  7. That sounds very interesting Debra, salvia are very popular with bees in the UK and I would be very interested to know what species of bumblebee you saw. Perhaps I could nudge you into taking a photo??!!

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