Butterflies in the library

Tropical butterflies produce a wonderful display but I was interested to learn about their more humble British cousins

Exotic visitors

Tropical butterflies at Wisley Glasshouse

It’s that time again when the glasshouse at Wisley Garden is populated by a colourful array of tropical butterflies. This year there are over 50 different species to be seen from all over the world, including Central and South America and South East Asia. It is a captivating display and visitors come from all around the area to watch these beautiful creatures as they dance amongst the flora. But what of our native butterflies? At the moment many will be hibernating and we shall have to wait for the warmer weather to see them in our gardens.

British butterfly hunt

Peacock butterfly on buddleja

In the meantime I decided to explore our collections at Wisley Garden Library to discover more about the butterflies in Britain. I began my research, unsurprisingly, in the Entomology section. Here you can find books about all kinds of insects from ants to wasps. I soon learnt, from Collins Butterfly Guide, that butterflies and moths together form the order of Lepidoptera - a word of Greek origin meaning wings with scales” (p.14), appropriate since it is the wing-scales which give these creatures their iconic colourings used in identification. The guide lists 440 of Europe’s butterflies including the UK’s largest butterfly the Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), which can only be found in a very restricted area of Norfolk, and its smallest the Little Blue (Cupido minimus).

Engraving of the White Admiral, from British Entomology by John CurtisPreserved in print

The library also has access to a copy of British Entomology by John Curtis (1823-1840) which Georges Cuvier pronounced to be “the paragon of perfection”, though unfortunately it did not sell as well as Curtis wished. [1] It contains many beautiful hand-coloured engraved illustrations of native butterflies, such as this one of the White Admiral (Limenitis camilla). Each plate is accompanied by a taxonomic description of the insect and details about where to find it, its behaviour and in some cases its cultural relevance.

Next I visited the Garden Literature shelves to read what gardeners past and present had to say about their experiences with butterflies in their gardens. I found a particularly delightful passage in  My Garden in Summer by E. A. Bowles (1914, p.151) where he describes the visits of the local butterflies to his Buddleia plants.


“if there is a Peacock, Painted Lady or Admiral Butterfly in the neighbourhood it is certain to spend many hours flitting over or sucking at the long purple spikes, and driving off a Large Cabbage White or two for a specially desirable bunch of honeypots; but the Small Tortoiseshells seem capable of holding their own, and so are respected by the larger insects.”

Declining numbers

Finally I consulted some of the titles in the Natural History area. Jennifer Owen’s study of wildlife in her Leicester garden between 1972 and 2001, aptly titled Wildlife of a garden: a thirty-year study, particularly intrigued me. One of the aspects she investigated was the effect of the weather on the butterfly population. Her observations led her to suggest that warm summers and mild winters, especially dry ones, lead to greater butterfly abundance. It is therefore troubling that the Big Butterfly Count 2016 saw a decrease in butterfly sightings for many native species despite a warm summer. The question now then is what are we going to do about it?

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Hooper, James and Foote, Yolanda (2004). Accessed at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6959?docPos=2.

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