Tag Archives: Anthocharis cardamines

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

Lockdown Nature Walks 5

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.

 

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Male orange-tip butterfly, showing the antennae, the grey-blue velevety body and the vivid orange patches on the forewings. One hindwing is slightly folded over

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:

 

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large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

 

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Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida). The chestnut haired thorax, dark abdomen and black hairs on the hind legs are key features

This is probably an ichneumon wasp but very difficult to pin down to species from one photograph.

 

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Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebells

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Bee fly (Bombylius major) nectaring on herb robert

 

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Male early mining bee (Bombus pratorum) on green alkanet. This was the first male of the season for me and looks very fresh with bright colours. Note the generally furry look, the yellow head and the orange-pink tail.

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.

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Female orange-tip butterfly showing her grey patch and spot on the forewing, also the veined and mottled underwing pattern

Male orange-tip butterfly showing veined, mottled pattern on underwing (click picture to enlarge and see the complexity of the pattern)

 

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.

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Orange-tip butterfly egg attached to garlic mustard

 

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Orange-tip butterfly larva on garlic mustard

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