Thursday, 5 August 2010

Fire and brimstone

One of the pleasures of hunting butterflies with a camera, is getting to know the flowers they patronise. The garden in our villa had this fiery-red hibiscus; like the Morning Glory, a beautiful bloom which lasts a sadly short time. The butterfly investigating it here - but apparently not interested in that amazing 'tongue' - is a Cleopatra, a species very like our own British Brimstone except for an excellent addition: two orange splodges on the forewings.

Alas, it is extremely difficult to catch these in a photograph because the butterfly folds its wings almost immediately it comes to rest on a flower. Why does it have them then. given that bold markings are usually thought to be warnings to potential predators? Perhaps it is to put off birds such as the swallows which fighter-planed round our villa in the afternoon. Certainly, the time that you see the vivid flashes of orange is when the butterfly is in flight. But you can maybe detect the tinge in this smaller photo of the underwing.

A fake Cleopatra was a cause celebre at the Natural History Museum in London. Allegedly caught in Britain at the height of 19th century collecting mania, its orange turned out to be paint. The species and its Brimstone relatives also have a major possible butterfly distinction; they are one of the leading (but unproveable) claimants to be the origin of the mysterious word 'butterfly', as 'butter-coloured flies', which indeed they are.

And here's another buttery one (below); a Pale Clouded Yellow on Paxos. Another pleasure for me too, because it's a species I'm most unlikely to find in Leeds. I see from the amazingly comprehensive 2009 yearbook of Yorkshire Butterfly Conservation (see link above left) that none were spotted in the county last year. There were 17 records of its more orangey relative the Clouded Yellow, however, including one in Barnsley. Hooray!

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