There have been many sightings this summer of people suddenly leaping to their feet, rushing out of the house, darting about wildly for a few moments, then coming back looking disappointed.
Yes, because of global warming, there are a lot of lepidopterists about.
These shy, restless creatures, with their distracted air and jerky movements, are on the lookout for butterflies. A A quiet meander in the garden can be disrupted when someone unexpectedly whispers “painted lady” and then tiptoes in an exaggerated theatrical way towards the shrubbery.
It’s quite common now to see red admirals in January or February. Since we are clearly overrun by butterflies, I thought it would be a good idea to deal with some of your questions that have trickled in about them.
Why do they flutter about all over the place with no apparent sense of purpose?
It used to be thought that they suffered from chronic indecision and also had very short memories so they had no recall of which flower they had already visited. Now experts believe it is all due to agonies of guilt. Butterflies have acquired a vague inkling of chaos theory and are under the impression that whenever they flap their wings they could be causing a tornado on the other side of the world. This would be enough to make anybody flit haphazardly.
What is the plural of chrysalis?
Not knowing how to refer to more than one chrysalis has inhibited many people from entering into conversations about butterflies. For some it has actually become a taboo subject. In an emergency, the best thing to do is to say “pupae”.
Do butterflies sting?
The male meadow brown will attack if it thinks its mate is being threatened. The venom can be fatal, but more often it causes hallucinations. The victim is convinced he is being attacked by giant hawk moths.
How do I identify a butterfly?
If in doubt, say “tortoiseshell”, unless it is a cabbage white, in which case you should say “orange wingtip”, because it will be several gardens away before anybody can check.
What do I need to know about caterpillars?
The rule is that the most exotic, garishly coloured, hairy caterpillar with horns at the back and an air of menace will turn into a nondescript, boring butterfly. And the dreary green maggoty one will emerge from the chrysalis as a rare and stunning beauty. It’s a lesson about life, really.
What happens on butterfly farms?
These are places where they breed vast herds of pedigree red admirals or peacocks. As they roam freely over the hillsides, the difficult job of herding them is done by tough weather-beaten men on horseback – known as “butterboys” – who mostly come over from Australia. The annual butterfly round-up is an impressive sight, but you wouldn’t want to be in the wrong place when they stampede.
Because butterflies are so hard to control, some farmers have decided it is better to start training them at an earlier stage in their development. A few people have special gifts as “caterpillar whisperers”, and they can win the confidence of the caterpillars while they are still “on the leaf”. The extraordinary thing is that the very special words used by the whisperers are remembered by the chrysalis and, later on, every butterfly will come when its name is called.
Are there any new species of butterfly?
Yes. Two new species have been recently authenticated by the Antenna Association, the butterfly equivalent of the Kennel Club. One, known as the dinky retro, is small and neatly patterned in shades of mauve and green. It is believed that it adapted itself so that when it settled on Laura Ashley fabrics and wallpaper it would be perfectly camouflaged.
Changes in home-decoration fashions have endangered the dinky retro and efforts are being made to create suitable environments for it.
The other new species is the speckled costa, an urban dweller. As it flits past you in the street, it looks exactly like one of those empty sugar sachets blown on the wind from the table of a coffee kiosk. That is usually exactly what it is.