As a kid I lived on a fairly rough council estate. It was the kind of place where, if you heard about arson, a burglary or vicious dog attack, you’d raise your eyebrows a bit and go “Oh,” before going back to what you were doing.
But it had some redeeming features. There were two playgrounds, loads of trees to climb, other kids to play with, and in summer, a cheery scatter of butterflies. This was mainly thanks to the reams of nettles, doc leaves and deadly nightshade everywhere.
One day my mission, should I choose to accept it, was to capture every species of local butterfly. I would obviously let them go again, and because this was a time when computers were astronomically expensive and phones still attached to the wall, I couldn’t exactly document them. Trapping them in a green plastic net usually reserved for reluctant goldfish was good enough. At least for 7 year-old me.
The most common species was definitely the tortoiseshell (Aglais utricae), and by my reckoning, also the daftest.
I almost never failed to catch one, to the point where I started throwing them a bored sigh instead of the aforementioned net.
Commas (Polygonia c-album), meadow browns (Maniola jurtina) and small whites (Pieris rapae) also fell victim easily, but since there were fewer of them, I assumed they were generally clever enough to hide. Peacocks (Aglais io) were my favourite. Their wings were bright and red as uniforms, but the eye patterns, supposedly angry, looked like they were shiny with tears.
I noticed a definite difficulty spike with them. They seemed a lot warier, so only about 60% of my hunts were successful. You wouldn’t starve on the savannah with those odds, so all good.
And then there were the red admirals.
These little bastards knew exactly how to tease me. They would park themselves nonchalantly in the middle of a path, or eye-level on a brick wall, sarcastically fanning their wings at me before an invisible hand seemed to snatch them away.
I got closer to them than any of the others, but I never caught a single one.
I tried for weeks, through many a scraped knee, nettle sting, and narrowly avoided dog poo, but to no avail.
But now, as of this month, that particular demon has finally been slain.
All I had to do was act like I didn’t want to catch them by moving 30 miles, waiting 30 years, and having a net on my payslip and nowhere else.
There are fewer butterflies around now, and we’re the ones trapped inside while we wait for everything awful in the world to blow over. I’m not doing too badly in these conditions, but my kitchen is no place for a butterfly, even a cocky one.
This particular admiral was caught between a half-pulled blind and the baffling assortment of vases(?), broken mugs and general crap littering our kitchen window sill. It was also veering dangerously close to a dripping sink, and probably being watched by whatever phenomenally lucky spider the cat hadn’t found yet.
It was still a red admiral though, so of course I utterly failed on my first attempt to catch it. Cupping one hand, I tried to guide the mini maelstrom towards the part of the window that was actually open. Just to spite me, it flitted right up to the edge before dancing back the way it came and crashing into the chopping boards. As an extra slap in the face, it then shot to the top of the blind where I couldn’t reach. Sometimes it sucks being 5”3.
A hunter has to be patient, so I retreated upstairs for a while. On my descent, I could hear it was still there, angrily flapping against the glass and rattling the blind. This time I was no-nonsense, and when it dropped back down again I cupped it from below and above, closing it in my palm and feeling it buzz against my skin. The vibrations of its wings were definitely sweary.
Stretching as far forward as I could (again, 5”3), I managed to fling it towards the open window. Free at last, the red admiral huffed its away back into the sunshine, annoyed at being the first in history to fall victim to my hand. Or, I’d like to think, willing to finally grant my wish in exchange for escape. Hopefully it won’t get demoted.
Red Admiral Facts
Latin: Vanessa atalanta
How big? Wingspan of about 6.4-7.8cm / 2.5-3 inches.
Where? Pretty much the spread of the Northern Hemisphere, as well as parts of New Zealand. If they don’t migrate south, they’ll hibernate in winter.
What do they eat? Beautiful purple buddleia is a favourite, but most plants rich in nectar will do. They’ll also take rotting fruit, and if you’re ever stung by a nettle, take heart – their caterpillars will avenge you mercilessly.
Do they need my help?
Yes, butterflies are often the first to cop it when the weather changes or the land gets churned up. But Butterfly Conservation would probably know the best way to give them a hand.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
Downing, Amanda. No date. “Vanessa atalanta“. Animal Diversity Web.
“Identify a butterfly“. No date. Butterfly Conservation.
Lewis, Amy. 2019. “Common UK butterfly identification and facts“. Woodland Trust.
“Red admiral“. No date. The Wildlife Trusts.
“Red admiral butterfly“. No date. RSPB.
Featured image credit: Elena Mullagaleeva, via Pixabay.