By Charlotte Owen
There is a subtle beauty to the speckled wood butterfly, whose wings are patterned to perfectly mimic the gentle dance of dappled sunlight on the woodland floor. Unlike its brightly-coloured, sun-loving cousins, this butterfly prefers the shade of the tree canopy and will happily fly on a cloudy day, flitting along woodland glades, patrolling hedgerows and venturing into well-vegetated parks and gardens. In fact, the Speckled Wood is vulnerable to overheating in strong sunlight and will retreat to the shadows to see out the more sweltering summer temperatures.
Males and females look alike but the female tends to have larger creamy wing spots, making her earthy tones appear paler than the male’s. Both sexes also have a range of darker ‘eye’ spots to deter predators, with one on each forewing and either three or four on the hind wings. Interestingly, the number of hindwing eye spots seems to determine the strategy employed by the male in his search for a female. Males with three eye spots tend to fly on active patrol, while those with four tend to sit and wait – presumably because the extra pair of watchful ‘eyes’ provides sufficient extra protection from predators while in this more vulnerable position. Males are highly territorial and often guard a single sunspot on the woodland floor, moving with it as the sun arcs through the sky. If another male intrudes, an immediate battle is triggered and the pair will fly up towards the canopy in a spiralling dogfight, with the victor returning to bask in his woodland spotlight.
Females mate soon after emerging but are often bombarded with so much unwanted male attention that they are forced to take a rather drastic measure. No longer interested in courtship, she will give her unrelenting suitor a very clear message by playing dead – closing her wings, drawing in her legs and keeling over sideways. Some males are a bit slow on the uptake and may spend several minutes investigating her ‘corpse’ but eventually the tactic pays off, the male takes wing and the female makes a sudden and miraculous recovery to flutter through the woodland in peace.