The unkempt gardens of Ratz Manor are host to a variety of butterflies; white, blue, speckled and spotted. Sadly most of these flit around in the high branches of the trees, instead of conveniently sunning themselves within photographic reach of a stumpy legged photographer. Not so the comma butterfly.
The comma is so named due to the white comma shape visible when the wings are raised. It also has a very distinctive ragged shape to the wings, unique among British butterflies. This helps to camouflage it, allowing it to resemble a crumpled leaf when the wings are raised. The caterpillars of the comma also employ a stealth mechanism by resembling a bird dropping.
Their favourite food stuff used to be hop plants, used for brewing beer, earning it the nickname “hop-cat”. During the Middle Ages, every village had their own brewery and grew their own hops. Mildly alcoholic beer was considered safer to drink than the water at the time. This species of butterfly, like many others, was in decline from the 1800s, retreating to the hop producing stronghold of the Welsh borders, including here in Herefordshire. However, in a rare example of a butterfly success story the numbers have bounced back in recent decades. It seems to have switched from a reliance on hops to being rather partial to nettles. The nettle is a much more plentiful and widespread plant, fascinating in itself, you might like to read my blog post about nettles here.
Another key to the success of the comma is the ability to produce multiple generations in one year. They emerge from hibernation in March, producing a new generation around July. If there is a good spring whilst the larvae are developing, some of this generation will go on to produce another generation emerging at the end of summer.
The Big Butterfly Count, the largest survey of butterflies in the world, is currently taking place in the UK until 10th August 2014. You can find out how to participate, and make national treasure, Sir David Attenborough happy, at this website here.
I feel that I should end this post with another haiku from Matsuo Basho, given the brief, beautiful life of a butterfly:
in a field of sunlight
that is all