As the world shuts down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
I’ve only ventured past the end of the cul-de-sac a couple of times in five weeks. And both times I’ve ended up having an argument with somebody. It’s probably better for my blood pressure that I stay in my garden and keep doing laps of the street for my daily exercise. One of the downsides to staying put is that so far this year I have missed out on seeing my spring wildlife highlight. And until I see one I can’t say that spring has officially started.
This time of the year I often get asked “What’s that butterfly with the orange tips on the end of its wings called”. “Well,” I reply “its scientific name is Anthocharis meaning ‘flower grace’; probably because this beautiful butterfly lends a certain elegance to the flowers it frequents. In the 18th century it was ‘The Lady of the Woods’ –a seductive title well deserved by the best-looking butterfly of the spring. The Germans celebrate its beauty in the name Aurotafalter; the sunrise butterfly. The French honour it with the poetic title L’Auroré - the rising sun”. “So what do us Brits call it ?” “Well, we call it the Orange-tip – because it has orange tips on the end of its wings”.
(Photo by Bob Eade)
Whoever gave this exquisite insect such an unimaginative name should be shot. It’s more than just a pair of orange tips. Forget your Bluebells and Skylarks, the emergence of the Orange-tip is nature’s confirmation that spring has officially sprung.
Only the male Orange-tip has those road cone orange wing-tips that visually scream “Look at me! Look at me!” as he cruises the countryside’s hedges and edges. You’d think this flamboyant display would land him on the menu for any passing bird - but he has an unsavoury secret. He tastes absolutely disgusting. His orange tips make birds recoil when they recall last eating something that colour. To predators he is a flying pot of lime pickle; if you’ve eaten it once you’ll never eat it again.
(photo by Bob Eade)
The grey-tipped females are more secretive. Once mated they search the hedgerows for their larval food plants: Cuckooflower and Garlic Mustard. They tap-dance on the plants and identify them with taste buds in their feet. Once their six soles are satisfied they lay a single, tiny, orange, oblong egg (imagine a rugby ball for ants). The egg’s shell emits a pheromone which deters other females from laying here because the cute little caterpillar, which hatches out a week or so later, is a cannibal.
This caterpillar gets to work eating so much of the flower’s seed pods that it starts to look like one (my Mum once warned me a similar phenomenon would happen with me and Monster Munch). Disguised as its diet, it munches through May – the plant toxins it ingests will help to flavour the bitter butterfly. In July it constructs a curious chrysalis - a bizarre bit of angular architecture attached to a stem by a single string. Inside this post-modern pupa the caterpillar melts into a cellular soup. And then the natural world’s greatest regeneration takes place. This biological broth builds a butterfly.
April sunshine encourages the Orange-tip to emerge; that simple flash of orange signalling that an even greater regeneration has finally taken place. Winter has turned to spring.
(Photo by David Ball)
Yesterday, while on lap seven of the cul-de-sac, an Orange-tip flew past. At last! I was getting worried that for the first time in my life I would have got through April without seeing one. Now I can relax. So, I'm happy to announce that spring is now officially here and it sent its little messenger to my cul-de-sac to let me know. Wonderful.
Right, three more laps and then it's back to to the bungalow.