Butterflies & Moths


Clouded Yellows "bumbled to and fro on untidy wings"

"In the day, on the [Corfu] hillsides where it seemed sucked free of every drop of moisture by the beating sun, you would get the great languid Swallow Tails, flapping elegantly and erratically from bush to bush; Fritillaries, glowing almost as hot and angry as a live coal, skittered quickly and efficiently from flower to flower; Cabbage Whites; Clouded Yellows and the lemon-yellow and orange Brimstones bumbled to and fro on untidy wings. Among the grasses the skippers, like little brown furry aeroplanes, would skim and purr, and on glittering slabs of gypsum the Red Admirals, as flamboyant as a cluster of Woolworth's jewellery, would sit opening and closing their wings as though expiring from the heat"

BIRDS BEASTS & RELATIVES © Gerald Durrell 1969

Painted Lady video

Painted Lady

"We were still out of sight of land [Greece], when we overtook a Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cadui). It alighted on my hunched up knees, displaying the gorgeous orange and black pattern of its wings with a few dainty flicks and looking no more tired than if it had just flitted from one rose bush to another. In fact an uncautious movement on my part sent it fluttering into the air again and it soon disappeared northwoods, bound perhaps for England, Norway or even distant Iceland.

It is a strange fact that many butterflies, in spite of their fragile appearance, are bold and hardy travellers and do not recoil from journeys of several hundred miles across the open sea. Every single Painted Lady Butterfly seen in England in the spring has arrived from some distant land: from Southern Europe or North Africa, as neither they nor their "British-born" progeny can survive an English winter. They arrive in England mostly in May or June and lay their eggs upon the thistle which is their larvae's favourite food. Then they and their offspring will delight our eyes for a few brief weeks until they and the summer are swept away with the autumn leaves."

ISLAND TRAILS © Theodore Stephanides 1973

Painted ladies live on every continent except Antartica. See for example:


Clouded Yellow

"Butterflies are attracted to to most of the colourful blooms - the reds, blues, violets and so on - and feeding on such flowers you will find clouded yellows ..."

THE AMATEUR NATURALIST © Gerald Durrell and Lee Durrell 1982

Clouded yellows are also one of the great migratory insects of Europe. Permanent populations exist in the southern half of Europe and north Africa. In some years Clouded Yellows cross the English Channel from continental Europe to the British Isles in tens of thousands in June and July. Occasionally huge yellow clouds of these butterflies are seen crossing and making a landfall on the English South Coast.



"How great a mystery of Nature is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly! This is not, as one might imagine at first, a gradual process of transition and modification. The body of the caterpillar is not just reduced or enlarged, it is not pushed in here or pulled out there there, it is not moulded as it were into the body of a butterfly. Nor is this the case with any of the caterpillar's organs.

No, a far more astounding sequence of events takes place. Inside the horny envelope of the pupa, the whole caterpillar melts and deliquesces into an amorphous semi-liquid pulp until nothing of its original form remains. Viewed as a sentient entity, that caterpillar has "died". It has no organs with which to contact the outside world, no nervous system to afford it awareness, however dim, of its own existence.

But after death comes resurrection. Somewhere in that pultaceous mass a mysterious controlling force is concealed. Science is baffled and even the imagination is confounded. It cannot be and yet it is! Some wholly inexplicable directing influence now exerts its power and slowly cell by cell, organ by organ, a new being takes shape. A new organism is gradually built up that bears no resemblance to the lowly caterpillar either in function or in shape, and a glorious butterfly spreads its wings to the welcoming sun.

The Ancient  Greeks called these radiant creatures, which appear thus to enter into a new and higher existence through the portal of their dead selves, psychae - souls! And their life-history, as revealed by present-day research, has invested this name with even deeper symbolism. Symbolism merging into Truth? ... Who knows? ..." 

ISLAND TRAILS © Theodore Stephanides 1973


Once of the soul I was the symbol bright

When, leaving my dead pupa, I became

A new-born glory climbing to the light

On airy wings of irridescent flame.

THE GOLDEN FACE © Theodore Stephanides 1965



Illustration from Victorian "Sketches of British Insects" 1875 by Rev. W. Houghton  a Victorian Naturalists guide.

 Red Admiral, Brimstone, Jersey Tiger Moth, Hummingbird Hawk Moth.


A Victorian Collectors draw with a Tiger Moth Collection.

The British Natural History Museum has specimens of butterflies dating back to the Seventeenth Century. They were collected by James Petiver (1663-1718). He named the "Red Admiral" after a British Naval Flag and named "Fritillary" after a chequered dice box.

The heyday of butterfly collecting was in late Victorian and Edwardian times. Railway lines and bicycles helped collectors reach the countryside. Natural history collecting, from stuffed animals and birds to shells and minerals was fashionable and attracted people from all walks of life with its promise of fresh air and nature.

At its peak in about 1900, 25,000 people from schoolboy dabblers to clergymen, doctors and dukes with well-filled mahogany cabinets, collected butterflies and moths. There was a more modest revival between the World Wars, encouraged by warm, sunny summers and the family car.

It is easy now to frown on these many past butterfly and insect collectors but in doing so you criticise the many people like, for example, Charles Darwin with his beetles and Gosse, a British lepidopterist, who in 1844 risked all to sail for 46 days to visit Jamaica for his studies.

"Collecting butterflies has long been a popular hobby, but a growing number of people now prefer to photograph the insects rather than amassing large numbers of dead specimens. This is all to the good, but it is only fair to add that we owe much of our present knowledge of butterflies to earlier generations of collectors."

Looking at Butterflies : L. Hugh Newman (1977)

"Since the sixties, specimen collecting has for the most part been replaced by rearing and photography, with a new focus on conservation. There is little evidence, however, it ever did much harm. It is only when a species becomes rare through other causes, such as changes in the habitat through altered agricultural practice, that it becomes vulnerable to over-collecting. An example is the English Large Copper butterfly that became extinct from drainage of the Fens, its favourite habitat, during the mid-19th Century. In the collecting heyday, most British butterflies were common enough to suffer no ill-effects."

The Aurelian Legacy - British Butterflies and their Collectors : Michael A. Salmon


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