Counting butterflies on a bug safari

Peacock butterfly

Peacock butterfly - photo by Lewis Collard

Sometimes living in the UK gets me down. It often seems like we’ve destroyed a lot of our lovely native wildlife, and you have to be quite determined to find a genuine wilderness. But every so often I’m reminded that ecosystems come in all shapes and sizes.

A couple of weeks ago my dad remembered that it’s time to start counting butterflies – part of Butterfly Conservation‘s Big Butterfly Count. The charity organises the count to find out how butterfly populations are doing – a good way to measure biodiversity because butterflies react quickly to changes in their environment. We were down on the south coast and our tally wasn’t high, but a short walk to a field that had run wild reminded me that you don’t need much habitat to house a lot of critters.

We stomped slightly off the beaten track into the long grass, filled with wild flowers and weeds. We could see butterflies dipping in and out of sight among the plants, but much closer up were beautifully browny-grey grasshoppers skipping out of the way of our feet. They were only really visible as they moved – as soon as they landed on a grass stalk they became invisible again.

Looking a little higher up there were cardinal beetles absolutely everywhere – and nearly every single one was having sex. What seemed like a quiet, boring field was actually jumping with bugs – bugs that were eating, flying, singing and shagging. In the darker corners hunting spiders crawled through the stems looking for prey, and funnel web spiders waited patiently for the prey to come to them. A devil’s coach horse beetle scuttled across the path and pale moths fluttered through the air.

I got pretty distracted from the task at hand – but we saw plenty of lovely lepidoptera. Peacock butterflies, small tortoiseshells, skippers, meadow browns, commas and a speckled wood or two. There are some good pictures on the Big Butterfly Count chart.

It was a real wilderness – just scaled right down. There were herbivores, carnivores, big flamboyant creatures like the butterflies and tiny little flies and aphids. I’d been reading Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals and lamenting that my back garden wasn’t full of praying mantids, toads and geckos, but this boring little field proved once again that you’re never far from an insect safari.

Every time I read that humans are ‘the most successful animals on the planet’ I think that all these billions of arthropods must be laughing at us. They’re everywhere, and they have been for hundreds of millions of years – not just a few thousand. They’re just getting on with it, all around us, all the time.

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