Seventy at Seventy

Life Begins at 70

[15] Bright Elusive Butterfly of Love

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[15] Bright Elusive Butterfly of Love – a Blog about Butterflies

I always had the general category of Animal Life split in my mind into Birds, Animals (meaning other vertebrates) and Insects (to include little invertebrates) but I had to wait until March and April to get an idea of numbers and decide the divisions required. I have gone for a taxonomic split into three blogs. This one will cover the Orders of Lepidoptera and Odonata. I will start this one with some overall comments about Entomology.


I need to say something about taxonomy. It’s not an agreed science and it’s a changing science. When I was young we had the Animal Kingdom and the Plant Kingdom divided them into the taxonomic levels of Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. (Plants use Division instead of Phylum.) Now we have suborders, infraorders, super-families, tribes, subspecies and lots more.

With all the definitions and divisions there is no universal agreement and there is constant change. But within the Animal Kingdom we still have the Phylum of Arthropods and within this we have the Class of Insects. Arthropods are invertebrates with segmented bodies and an exoskeleton. They include Crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, shrimps,) Myriapods (centipedes and millipedes,) Chelicerates (spiders, scorpions etc.) and Insects. Broadly speaking insects have six legs, chelicerates have eight, crustaceans have ten and myriapods have lots.

In general all insects have:

  • A jointed, segmented body with an exoskeleton.
  • Three main body sections – head, thorax and abdomen.
  • Three pair of legs attached to the thorax.
  • One pair of antennae.
  • Two pairs of wings.
  • Partial or complete metamorphosis.

There are approximately five to ten million species of insects with about 20 000 found in Britain.

The main Orders that you will probably recognize are as follows.

  • Diptera – Flies (about 1 000 000 species with 5 000 in the UK) have one pair of wings with balancing halteres replacing the other pair. See Blog [17].
  • Coleoptera – Beetles (400 000 species with about 4 000 in the UK) have an outer pair of wings that have become hardened elytra or wing covers. See Blog [16].
  • Lepidoptera – Butterflies and Moths (about 200 000 species, mostly moths.) In Britain we have a small number of Butterfly species and thousands of moth types, most of which are micro-moths about as small as ants. [See Below.]
  • Hymenoptera – Bees, Wasps and Ants and some others (about 150 000 species.) Some of these are social insects with queens and stings. See Blog [16].
  • Hemiptera – true Bugs (about 80 000 species of which about 1 500 are seen in the UK) are mostly little and found on plants or animals, often as parasites. See Blog [16].
  • Odonata – Dragonflies and Damselflies, with long, slender bodies and a pair of wings that can’t be folded. [See Below.]
  • Orthoptera – Grasshoppers and Crickets, usually with hind legs modified for jumping.

There are also orders for Earwigs, Lacewings, Mayflies, Caddis Flies, Fleas, Cockroaches and many others.

There are exceptions to almost all the rules of taxonomy and many insects do not have any wings. Some have wings for less than a day of their life. Silverfish are completely wingless but taxonomists can’t agree whether these are insects or not. As noted above Spiders, Centipedes and Millipedes are not insects; Woodlice are crustaceans and snails are molluscs – but all of these little beasts tend to get included by entomologists.

This is one of three blogs about insects. See also [16] Hymenoptera and [17] Diptera.

I will include pictures of insects taken over the spring and summer in many locations. Many are from my Cheltenham garden or my regular walks along the Honeybourne Path. I have also walked along the Thames Path through and beyond Oxfordshire and have travelled in all directions to birdwatching sites. I generally will not say where each picture is taken and I will more or less stick to a sort of taxonomic order with some entomological notes.

LEPIDOPTERA – Butterflies and Moths

The word Lepidoptera means scale-wings and these minute scales give the familiar coloured patterns to the wings of Butterflies and Moths. Most have a long tubular proboscis and feed mainly on nectar. There are less than a hundred types of butterfly likely to be seen in the UK and they can more or less be recognized by sight. Moths are more difficult – there are thousands of species, they are smaller, they generally fly at night, and almost all are various forms of mottled brown.


Male and female butterflies are usually very similar but there are some exceptions! It’s also important to realize that the upper and lower wing patterns may be very different to each other – and you may need to see both sides for identification.

They are very seasonal. You may see dozens one day and none of the same type the next week. They can generally manage two or three generations in a year.

The Nymphalidae are the large spectacular butterflies.

  • Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

One of our most colourful butterflies but so far my only photo-opportunity has been of one sleeping overnight in our conservatory with its wings closed.

  • Comma Polygonis c-album

The easiest distinguishing feature of this butterfly is the shape of the wings. You may not see the underside but there is a small white mark looking a little like a comma (,) that give this one its name.

  • Small Tortoiseshell Aglaias urticae

You can leave out ‘Small’ and call it a Tortoiseshell because the Large Tortoiseshell is now probably extinct in Britain.

  • Peacock Inachis io

The ‘eyes’ on the wings identify this butterfly. Here is a closer view.

  • Speckled Wood Pararge aegeric

  • Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus

This is the least plain of our three similar plain brown species, with its double dots. The male is shown here.

  • Ringlet Aphantopus hyperantus

Probably our dullest butterfly.

  • Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina

This butterfly looks somewhat between a Gatekeeper and a Ringlet. The larger female is a little more colourful.

Pieridae are white and yellow.

  • Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines

In flight these can look similar to other whites. Upper and lower sides of the wings are different but they are easily recognizable from the lower view. Males don’t have the orange tip on the upper wing surface – they are similar to other whites but have the same mottled wing pattern as the females underneath.

  • Green-veined White Pieris napi

The veins on the underside are obvious but you may not see them. You may have to look at identification pictures to tell this one from the other whites. [I have no pictures this year of our other three white species.]

  • Brimstone Gonopteryx rhamni

The male is a slighter brighter yellow colour but both are distinctly recognizable in flight. It normally rests with its wings closed unlike the similar but smaller Brimstone Moth.

Lycaenidae are smaller, blue or copper coloured butterflies.

You will have to look carefully at both sides of the wings for some similar butterflies.

  • Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus


  • Large Skipper Ochlodes sylvana

You can see some more butterflies in [18] Croatian Wildlife.


There is no easy way to define the differences between butterflies and moths and taxonomists disagree among themselves. (As my Field Guide to Insects puts it, the division has no scientific basis!) There are seven families considered to be butterflies – and moths cover everything else among Lepidoptera, well over a hundred families! As a general rule butterflies have thin antennae with small clubs at the end of their antennae. Moth antennae are quite varied, mostly hair-like or feathery.

Although there are many more moths than butterflies they are smaller and generally (but not all) nocturnal so they are not seen so much – unless you have a moth trap. Here is the only one I managed to photograph for you.

It’s not my best picture as it was taken through the thick window of a cruise ship on the way home from a short cruise to Antwerp and France. It’s a Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba, the most common species for the family Noctuidae, and it migrates to Britain in large numbers every summer. This one stopped very briefly on the ship as we made our way towards the Bristol Channel.

You may wonder why it is called a yellow underwing. Its hindwings are bright orange but it doesn’t normally rest in a way that shows them!

There are some colourful day-flying moths but none of them posed for me. I did find some tiny dirty brown micro-moths.


Most lepidopterists consider that micro-moths form a distinct subdivision of moths and you can buy books to help you identify either ‘Moths’ or ‘Micro-moths.’ But there are no clear lines between then and no agreement as to which families to include. Size is not the only factor affecting this division and some micro-moths can be relatively large. Of the thousands of micro-moth species, almost all are indistinctly mottled dirty brown but the experts can tell them apart!

Moth aficionados have moth traps. With a suitable light overnight to attract these beasts you can capture them throughout the year. Your catch will change week by week and you may expect to find thousands every year covering hundreds of species. I haven’t succumbed yet to the moth trap temptation but occasionally I find one indoors overnight attracted by the house lights.

These are Bittersweet Smudge Acrolepia autumnitella; Brown House Moth Hofmannophila pseudospretalla and Light Brown Apple Moth Epiphyas postvittana.

Bee Moth Aphomia sociella and Common Swift Korscheltellus lupulina, both found at Aldbury.

The Swift group sometimes counts as macro-moths but the border is not that clearly defined anyway!

The next group were some tiny moths spotted outside the house – Dark Strawberry Tortrix Celepha lacunana; Red-clover Case-bearer Coleophora deauratella, Straw Dot Rivula sericealis not strictly a micro-moth but small; and an unidentified one.


There are three more micro-moths that I am beginning to recognize.

Nettle Tap Anthophila fabriciana

These are fairly easy to spot at the right time of year as they tend to like nettles!

But they are small!

Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner Cameraria ohridella

This tiny moth seems to have come from the Balkans and has spread rapidly. It reached Britain in 2002 and now covers virtually all of England. It causes significant damage to horse-chestnut trees with widespread late summer browning of leaves. Trees survive repeated infestations and re-flush normally in the following year.

The larva feeds in a mine in the leaves of the tree, damaging the leaves and stunting growth. The cycle can repeat itself several times in one season. You may see lots of tiny flying moths if you can catch the right dates. They are surprisingly colourful under magnification.

Mint Moth Pyrausta aurata

You may see a trend emerging. You can find Nettle Tap on Nettle and Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner on Horse Chestnut. Well, you can find the Mint Moth on mint or catmint. Through the summer I can regularly find two or three in our garden. I think they start out a nice bright purple and gradually wear towards a dark brown.

ODONATA Damselflies and Dragonflies

These insects characteristically have large rounded heads with well-developed, compound eyes; legs that facilitate catching other insects in flight; two pairs of long, transparent wings that move independently; and elongated abdomens.

[In the mid-Eighteenth Century Johan Christian Fabricius coined the term Odonata from the Greek odontos (tooth) apparently because they have teeth on their mandibles, even though most insects also have toothed mandibles.] They are one of the few orders of insects not named –optera from their wings but they split conveniently into Zygoptera (Damselflies) and Anisoptera (Dragonflies.)

Most have a structure on the leading edge near the tip of the wing called the pterostigma, a thickened, often colourful area bounded by veins. They are aquatic or semi-aquatic as juveniles. So the adults are most often seen near bodies of water and they may be described as aquatic. They are carnivorous throughout their life, mostly feeding on smaller insects.

There are about twenty damselflies and twenty dragonflies seen in Britain but you need to look closely to identify the common ones.


The suborder Zygoptera means ‘even wings,’ and damselflies tend to have similar front and hind wings. They are relatively small and slim and generally fold the wings along the body when at rest. In damselflies, there is typically a gap in between the eyes.

We have two very similar species – Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella and Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum. The first two pictures below are Azure, the next three are Common Blue

I am sure you spotted the difference in the third abdominal segments.

Recognition can be complicated as females have various different colourations and newly emerged insects start almost colourless.

The mature male Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans has a black body with a light blue mark towards the end of the abdomen but again females and newly emerged males show variation.

My last relatively common damselfly is the Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens with its very obvious blue band. The female is less resplendent.


Anisoptera means ‘uneven wings,’ as the hind wings of dragonflies tend to be broader than the front ones. They are larger than damselflies, with fairly robust bodies and at rest they hold their wings out to the side. Dragonfly eyes occupy much of the animal’s head, touching (or nearly touching) each other across the face.

Here are some Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum. Before the veins fill the wings are completely transparent.

They are well worth looking at in close-up.

Elusive Butterfly” is a popular song written by Bob Lind, released in 1965. In the song the narrator sees himself as a butterfly hunter, looking for romance, but he finds it as elusive as a butterfly.

You might wake up some morning; To the sound of something moving past your window in the wind;

And if you’re quick enough to rise; You’ll catch a fleeting glimpse of someone’s fading shadow;

Out on the new horizon; You may see the floating motion of a distant pair of wings;

And if the sleep has left your ears; You might hear footsteps running through an open meadow.

Don’t be concerned, it will not harm you; It’s only me pursuing something I’m not sure of;

Across my dreams with nets of wonder; I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

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