Butterflies: FAQ

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.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

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.

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Summer holiday prize draw

Your big chance to make a difference!

How would you like to run the country for three weeks while Gordon Brown is away on holiday? It couldn’t be easier. I’m offering the unique opportunity for one lucky reader to take command of Downing Street this summer in the absence of the Prime Minister following news this week that the political contenders for the role are causing Gordon Brown a few headaches.

punch judyAll you have to do is answer one simple question to be entered in my Grand Prize Draw. Here is the question: What sort of hat does a cowboy wear? Is it: a) a Datsun, or b) a Stetson, or c) a Simpson?

You can telephone your answer to my premium telephone line or send us a text, costing £30 a time. Remember, you have to be over the age of 16 to enter.

The winner will be picked up from his or her home and taken by chauffeur-driven limousine to Downing Street. On the journey there will be a briefing on the current political situation by the chauffeur.

After being photographed waving, you will be ushered into Number 10 to take tea with the Cabinet Secretary’s PA’s secretary ‘s admin assistant and will be shown the actual sofa where all the important decisions are taken. You will then be presented with an easy-to-follow handbook How to Run the Country which you will be able to keep as a souvenir after your stint at Number 10.

The handbook gives tips on such matters as waving-while-walking, how to check for messages on the PM’s answering machine and what to do if the hotline develops a fault. It also contains a speech saying that you’re monitoring the situation closely – just in case there is an unexpected international crisis and you can’t get Douglas Alexander on his mobile.

I have organised a packed diary for your weeks in office. On the first Tuesday you will be showing a party of schoolchildren round the Department of Work and Pensions then later rushing to Heathrow to greet the Bolivian holiday relief foreign minister on a stopover on his way to Paris. (If the holiday relief foreign minister is not available I’m hoping to line up somebody from a Taiwanese trade delegation. If that is not possible you will have the option of sending messages of goodwill to various countries.)

With a bit of luck, you may be able personally to scramble the RAF to deliver something that Sarah Brown has forgotten to take on holiday. And I’m arranging for you to summon the Secretary of State for Defence to Downing Street for urgent talks. Pressure of work means it won’t be the actual Secretary of State, but a Mr R.G. Higginbottom, who is believed to be 17th in line of seniority at the ministry and is said to be “very big in camouflage”.

The highlight of your time in charge will be Your Very Own Crisis. (See page 86 of your handbook for the illustrated guide on “How to look grave”.)

You will be the envy of all your friends as you come out on to the pavement outside Number 10 to announce to the cameras that the situation is now under control, but as a precaution you are cancelling all leave for the Corps of Commissionaires. I’m hoping to lay on the level of crisis that will allow you to say: “The Prime Minister will not be flying back early from holiday, but I am, of course, keeping him fully informed throughout.”

There will be ample rehearsal time before your big press conference and leading political speech coaches will train you in how to say: “This is just one of those silly season stories and I’m not even going to dignify it with a comment. All I will say is that the Government is getting on with the job it was elected to do.

So, for the experience of a lifetime, just get the old brain working on that question about cowboy hats and you could be the one in the saddle. If you think you know the answer, get telephoning or texting to win your place in history. Or you can enter by post, marking the envelope “Acting Prime Minister”.

I can guarantee that you’ll enjoy yourself so much running the country that you won’t be able to resist writing your memoirs. And for the runners-up there are 100 life peerages to give away. The next 100 runners-up get the chance to enjoy a whole week as head of the quango of their choice. So hurry – a week is a long time in politics!

One final point: when sending in your entry to the quiz please also include your head size.

As Acting Prime Minister, the winner will be fitted with a special safety helmet for being photographed while doing a walkabout at an ambitious building project – details yet to be confirmed.

If the eventual winner ducks out for any reason, Lord Mandelson will stand in for him/her.

Live commentary from SW19

‘We’re going straight over to the Centre Court to see what is happening there.”

“Yes, Sue, this promises to be an absorbing match between the Unseeded Latvian and the Dull American. They’re coming onto court now, carrying gigantic kit bags over their right shoulders. The Latvian’s bag is bigger and heavier than the American’s. Obviously he’s relying on his larger bag to gain a psychological advantage.”

“I’ve often wondered what’s in those bags, John.”

“Laundry, mostly. Players accumulate a great deal of dirty washing on the tour, Sue.”

“So that’s why these players are wearing ill-fitting tops from charity shops. They’ve run out of clean shirts.”

“Exactly, Sue. It’s interesting that the American has gone to Oxfam, while the Latvian’s tactics are to choose a superbly drab number from the NSPCC. Notice how the shirts ride up and expose their navels on the first serve, but the American has also managed some navel exposure on his second serve.”

“Let’s go over to Court Number Two, where there’s an exciting women’s match between Elena and Elena. Somewhat confusing, Mark?”

“Not really, Sue. All the women players this year are called Elena. Except Elena Williams, holder of the tournament’s official misprint and appearing as Serena. In this match, Elena has a slight edge over the other Elena because she can fit three balls into the back of her pants and the other Elena is managing only two. By the way, Sue, we have no fewer than seven idiots among the spectators who have painted their faces red, white and blue.”

“Fascinating stuff, Mark. The Centre Court just has a flash photographer. Let’s find out what’s happening there now. John?”

“Yes, Sue. The Latvian sent a first serve into the net and when the ball-girl, Rosemary Wilkinson, scampered across the court to fetch the ball, the electronic timing device timed her scamper at 94.3 mph, which is her personal best on grass.”

“Now I’m hearing that something is happening on Court One in the match between the Depressed Spaniard and the Exasperated Australian. Barry, what can you tell us?”

“Sue, they’re sitting, having a break between games. As you can see, the Spaniard is now eating half a banana. He may be giving himself a problem. This is a close contest with every game going to several deuces and, by the time he gets back for the second half of the banana, he’s going to find it brown and sloppy.”

“On Court Two, both Elenas have lost their first four service games and I gather there’s something going on. Mark can give us the details.”

“Yes, Sue, it’s been gripping stuff with long baseline rallies. It comes down to a contest between Elena’s disturbingly sexual gasps every time she hits the ball and the other Elena’s tragic sobs. In the crucial ninth game, Elena’s sobs so distressed a line judge that she burst into tears and had to be helped off the court.”

“Thank you for that. Over on the red button you can follow the whole of the match between the Depressed Spaniard and the Exasperated Australian, where I can tell you the Spaniard has not touched the second bit of banana, but he leads on towels. He was mopped himself with seven towels, while the Australian is on his fifth. Here on BBC1 we are staying with the Latvian and the Dull American.”

“Yes, Sue, and there you can see the Latvian’s girlfriend sitting beside his coach. They look very intimate. Do you think they are having an affair?”

“There’s certainly something going on there, John. How will this affect the Latvian’s backhand?”

“And Rosemary Wilkinson has just scampered across at 96.4 mph.”

“What do you think is going through the Dull American’s mind at the moment, John?”

“Well, Sue, he’ll be wondering how he can cope mentally with the Latvian’s much bigger kit bag.”

A sneezy history of allergies

Anyone who thinks allergies are a modern phenomenon is making a big mistake.

There is a mass of evidence to show that most Ancient Greeks had runny noses because marble had that effect on them.  Hay fever and similar afflictions have played a significant role in our nation’s history.

hayfeverSurely everyone now agrees that pollen was a decisive factor in the Wars of the Roses and that fleas carried by rats have been unjustly blamed for the Great Plague which was simply caused by a batch of dodgy oysters. And most historians now accept that the principal effect of the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was to open the floodgates to wheat allergy which was, in turn, a major cause of the Crimean War.

Then there was the tragic misunderstanding when Henry II ( who had a fruit allergy) cried: “Who will rid me of this turbulent peach?”

I have, in fact, written a book on the role of hay fever in history. It’s called Sneezes That Changed the World. A publication date has not yet been set because my publisher gets an “adverse reaction” whenever he looks at the manuscript.

In the book, I examine some key events from the allergy perspective. For example, we know that King John put his seal on Magna Carta in 1215 and this was somehow significant, but most people have no idea why. The clue is in the name of the place where it happened: Runnymede. This was a well known hay fever hot spot in Surrey whose occupants were all red-eyed and streaming.

Every schoolboy knows Magna Carta was a list of demands made by barons, but few know what the demands were. Magna Carta was, in fact, a list of dietary requirements.

It called on the king to provide gluten-free pastry on all eel pies, only organic swan meat and no additives in pottage. In stark terms, it reminded the king that many barons were pickled goose-intolerant and that one of their number would have violent fits of vomiting if his mutton fat was not stewed in pure rainwater.

There was a tense moment on that day in Runnymede in 1215. The barons handed King John a quill to sign the document and he immediately came out in a hideous rash, because he was allergic to feathers. That is why he was allowed to put his seal on it instead.

My book also deals in detail with the tactics at the battle of Agincourt. Up to now, nobody has explained why, before the battle, Henry V ordered his archers to be marched from the hill on the east side of the battlefield to a new position on a slope on the south-west side. I have established that all the archers had been issued with a sample sachet of aftershave by the makers who were co-sponsors of Henry’s French campaign.

The aftershave was called Ho, Varlet (“For the warrior in you”), made from essence of turnip. In their new position, the archers were upwind of the French troops who, as soon as they got a whiff, were overcome with choking. Ever since then, the English have taunted the French with the two-fingered V-sign, standing for “Varlet”

The most foolish words Anne Boleyn ever uttered to Henry VIII were “Either that cat goes or I do.” Her lovely milk-white skin was covered with itchy red blotches and she blamed Henry’s cat, which was named Socks – or, more accurately, focks. It was a terrible dilemma for Henry because the much-loved focks was a present from Sir Thomas More. He knew that either the cat or his wife would have to be put down.

Strangely enough, it was what Marie Antoinette did not say that was disastrous for her. For some reason, she forgot to add: “Cake may contain nuts.” Almost at once, the enraged mob, with swollen tongues and puffy lips, foaming, writhing and turning blue, surged through the streets of Paris. Many a brave young aristocratic lady wept as the tumbril took her to the guillotine – but only because the pieces of straw in the cart brought on another hay fever attack.

My final example of history’s might-have-beens concerns the origins of the Second World War and, in particular, when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich and said “I have in my hand this piece of paper…”.

If only, at that moment, he had not felt an overpowering need to blow his nose.