Archive for the ‘Butterflies’ Category

Autumnwatch #4: The Comma: Is it a leaf? Is it a form of punctuation? No, it’s a Butterfly!

IMG_0465  Another butterfly that you might catch flying on these sunny Autumn days is the Comma (Polygonia c-album). A member of Nymphalidae, it is drawn to late autumn flowers and fallen fruit. It’s a very interesting species for a number of reasons. Firstly, look at that camouflage! The whole wing shape of the Comma has evolved to look like the shape of a dead leaf; when it closes its wings, all you see are the crinkled brown undersides, a perfect illusion. Even the attractive uppersides are an aesthetically seasonal mix of orange and brown.IMG_0407


So why the unusual name? Well, if you look closely in the picture below, you can see a little white mark on the underside of the wings that looks like… a comma. Bizarrely enough, the butterfly has a North American relative called ‘The Question Mark’ that has a white mark that looks a bit like…a question mark! (I challenge you to a cross-curricular link to this preparation for Mr Gove’s SPAG test!)


Spot the comma…


And spot the question mark on its North American friend..
(Picture source: Fine Art America)


The Comma is now quite a frequent sight across Britain, but once the situation was very different. At the turn of the century, numbers started a massive decline; by the 1920s there were only a few colonies left in Hereford and Worcestershire. Happily, things suddenly and inexplicably improved, and this species is one of the few butterfly success stories of recent years.

More info and photos here…


Primary Scientists Autumnwatch #1: The Small Tortoiseshell

Well, Autumn hasn’t officially started yet, but here we go! These first few weeks of the Autumn term are interesting ones, the interface between the fading summer and the oncoming crisp golden-ness of October making for some great wildlife-watching  opportunities.

Already the days are starting to have that September chill in the air, and soon the numbers of insects will be diminishing. There are several species of butterfly still to be seen ‘on the wing’ into September and October, and in fact these are some of our most colourful and familiar. Today we are highlighting a well-known and popular species, the Small Tortoiseshell.



Aglais urticae


One of the most colourful species of butterfly to be seen in Britain, the Small Tortoisheshell is widespread throughout the country. Partly, this is due to the wide availability of its foodplant, the common stinging nettle. However, in recent years it has become significantly less common, with recent studies citing as high as 52% decreases in some areas. There is some speculation that this is because of the spread of a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, whose eggs are laid on nettle leaves and then ingested by caterpillars. You can read more about a study into this here.

On the bright side, the butterfly seems to have enjoyed a good summer this year, no doubt boosted by our scorching July!

There are two broods of the species each year. Adults hatch in July and August, and can survive not only our Autumn, but winter as well. Although you probablyt won’t see them, they are one of the few species that hibernate, in sheds, outbuildings and eaves of buildings. On warm February days you might be startled to find one of these overwintering specimens flying around your house, having woken prematurely!

The overwintered Tortoiseshells are some of the first butterflies to be seen each year, and breed again in the Spring.


Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars - coming to a classroom near you?

Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars – coming to a classroom near you?

The Small Tortoishell is a great species to use in class supporting life cycles. Caterpillars are easily bred in captivity, and fresh nettles are easy to find to top up their food supply; it’s a great one to rear in your classroom, and the butterflies can be released anywhere. The organisation WorldWideButterflies provides special school rearing packs (as well as lots more) here, which are available from September. Obviously, this sort of project provides lots of great learning opportunities. As well as purely Science objectives, you could work in literacy themes of explanations (the life cycle), instructions (how to care for the caterpillars), as well as poetry, descriptive writing and so forth. As well as learning opportunities, there is the potential to help boost wild stocks of a species not as common as it was.


Did you know that the Small Tortoiseshell has a much rarer relative?

The Large Tortoiseshell. Picture source: Wikipedia

The Large Tortoiseshell. Picture source: Wikipedia

The Large Tortoisheshell Nymphalis polychloris, is superficially similar, but a paler orange and, you guessed it, larger. It once lived alongside it’s smaller cousin in the U.K., but has been declared extinct here for a number of years. Partly this was due to its more specialised needs; the caterpillars fed on elm trees, much less common than nettles. It hasn’t been seen for certain since the 1950s, although there are hopes for a comeback in the Isle of Wight.

Subject Knowledge Booster – species focus

As well as specific school-orientated resources, we’ve started updating our ‘UK Wildlife’ pages with useful subject knowledge. Over time, lots of different species will be added there. Now and again, some especially useful or interesting examples will be featured on the main blog page, too. With so many ‘classic examples’ of organisms, as dictated by the curriculum or just their preponderance in popular consciousness, we often forget some of the great examples lurking on our own doorsteps and back gardens. Such examples are nice to throw in to remind kids that, for instance, camouflage isn’t just a distant process exclusive to far-away chameleons and polar bears. The fact that there are examples that they might actually be able to go and find can really help to engage them. In addition to the photographs, the species will be featured in fact-files  use these as you wish, for your own reference, to give to children for research tasks, or as a reading comprehension resource.

To kick things off, and to fit in with the new Butterflies 101 page, here’s a nice example of a camouflaged species native to our shores…



Callophrys rubi

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The Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) is often overlooked. Our only majorly green butterfly, it is about the size of a thumbnail. It’s not really rare, although according to Butterfly Conservation, last year’s sodden summer caused numbers to drop 68%. What it is, is easily ignored. In fact, the Green Hairstreak’s camouflage is two-fold. The upper side of its wings are a dingy brown, making it inconspicuous and hard to follow in flight. When it settles, it always keeps its wings closed, the green being a good match for the hawthorn leaves it is fond of perching on. Keen sunbathers, the butterflies tilt themselves toward the sun so that their wings absorb the maximum amount of spring sunshine. As they do so, the iridescence of their wings makes them seem to change from a gold-ish green at one  extreme angle to almost turquoise at the other.

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A charming little butterfly, with its tiny teddy-bear face, you can catch it on heathland and moorland across the country from April to June. The examples below are from the Longshaw moors in Derbyshire.

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Related resources

More information on the Green Hairstreak at the superb Butterfly Conservation-affiliated website Uk Butterflies:

Here is an abbreviated factfile that you could use…green hairstreak factfile

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