Butterflies at Wheatfen Angela Woodrow
The seasons at Wheatfen bring variety with butterflies as with other flora and
fauna. Warm days in early March bring out overwintering peacock butterflies
and brimstones visit the nodding daffodils that line the path to Home Dyke. The
dense clusters of ivy throughout the reserve make ideal hibernation sanctuaries
for the brimstone, and the abundance of buckthorn on which the female lays her
eggs ensures this beautiful insect thrives here.
By the middle of March, on a sunny day, commas and tortoiseshells can be seen
seeking nectar plants and basking on the emerging lush new growth.
The re-emergence of these butterflies is always welcome and shows the grip of
winter has eased, but the appearance of the distinctive male orange tip is, for
me, the true symbol of spring. He is followed about a week later by the female
who has grey, rather than orange tips to her wings but the underside of both
have exquisite camouflaged hindwings.
As April brings warmth, nectar and longer days, speckled wood, green-veined
white, small white and holly blue can all be seen on a walk around the reserve.
The migrants arrive in May. Red admiral, and usually later in the month, the
beautiful salmon-pink and black painted lady. The timing of their arrival depends
on the winds from North Africa and Europe. Some years see huge numbers
of these lovely insects arriving early and their numbers are swelled by the next
generation eggs being laid on thistle and mallow.
June brings the jewel in Wheatfen’s crown – the emergence of the swallowtail.
The reserve is carefully managed to ensure milk parsley can flourish and eggs
can often be found to show visitors on Swallowtail Day, mid way through the
month. The sight of these stunning butterflies gliding over the reedbed searching
for the yellow flag irises which grow in profusion on Four Acres is a memory
taken away by many visitors.
The browns and skippers begin to emerge later in June, with meadow brown and
large skipper leading the way, followed by ringlet, small skipper and gatekeeper.
Another very special butterfly at Wheatfen is the white admiral, which has
benefited from coppicing to open up an area of Surlingham Wood, allowing
honeysuckle and bramble to flourish. Good numbers can be seen soaring high
into the canopy before gliding down to the bramble blossom or to bask on the
leaves of the cascading honeysuckle. The underside of both male and female is
particularly beautiful with orange patterning and strong white banding.
A colourful scene greets visitors who walk along Smee Loke in mid July. The
path is lined with pink hemp agrimony flowerheads which become alive with
peacock, small tortoiseshell, red admiral and painted lady, sharing the flowers
with bees and hoverflies.
In the reedbeds, milk parsley plants are being chewed by fat, maturing
swallowtail caterpillars. They will shortly pupate before emerging again in August
to give another spectacular display, often coming to the garden to feed on
knapweed. Occasional species seen this month have included the wall butterfly,
purple hairstreak and clouded yellow, making a total for the reserve of more than
The butterflies of this lovely place are just one very good reason to enjoy walks
around the reserve.
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