Return of the Emperor

, 25 July 2016
Return of the Emperor
purple emperor / Derek Middleton

By Michael Blencowe

People and Wildlife Officer

The sight of butterflies going about their business is one of summer’s greatest pleasures. Books tend to segregate our 58 species into social ranks; the common browns, the blue-collar blues, the working-class whites. But turn the page, past the lepidopteral lower-classes, and you’ll find a butterfly so unique, so magnificently majestic, so breathtakingly beautiful that for centuries British naturalists have bowed before it.

Draped in resplendent robes of iridescent amethyst, obsidian and ermine the purple emperor has to be one of the most impressive animals on our island. Across Sussex in summer the purple reign begins.

Aside from an alluring appearance emperors also possess that combination of rarity and elusiveness which has elevated them into an almost mythological figure. How a large, shiny purple butterfly manages to exist undetected in our countryside is down to an arboreal existence. Purple emperors spend almost all their time on lofty thrones high in the treetops.

Up there, in their canopy kingdom, emperors compete in a power struggle for territory and males gather for summer tree-top tournaments. Their wings flash as they clash in acrobatic aerial jousting and they spar and spiral high into the Sussex skies. The emperor’s ferocity and fearlessness in the defence of his realm are famous. Butterflies, bumblebees and other insects get a battering if they trespass and, incredibly, bemused birds (including woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, gulls and herons) also receive a warning wing-slap

Emperors don’t lower themselves to feast on flowers like other butterfly riffraff. The emperor sups sugars by quaffing only the finest honeydew distilled by aphids in the treetops. Yet the emperor has some dirty habits which drag him down to the filthy forest floor. To get his majesty’s mojo working he requires a mid-morning meal of minerals which he obtains by probing his proboscis into the most disgusting muck he can find - dog poo, horse manure, used nappies, even dead animals – nothing is too repugnant.

The purple emperor has a wide distribution in Sussex; spend ten minutes staring into the treetops this summer and you may catch a glimpse of this incredible butterfly.

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