What Nobody Tells You About Butterflies

They appear with the sun, and waft back and forth as if floating on a sea of warm air waves. Apparently carefree, perhaps they dance purely for our pleasure? Let's find out...
Butterflies mud puddling
Published on  Updated on  
They appear with the sun, and waft back and forth as if floating on a sea of warm air waves. Apparently carefree, perhaps they dance purely for our pleasure? Let's find out...

There’s nothing more delightful than watching butterflies fluttering around the garden on a balmy summer afternoon. 

Obvious and spectacularly colourful, everyone can recognise a butterfly. Maybe not by name, but red, orange, white and yellow ones are all common in the garden, and on good days even blue ones may appear. Because butterflies are so visually appealing and from childhood known to be unthreatening, I suspect they’re accepted even with much of their behaviour unknown. But they are intriguing creatures.

Insects of the Lepidoptera order, they are among the most plentiful on earth. With about 18,000 species (10x that number if you include moths), of which 60 visit or live in the UK, and over 20 of these can be seen in our gardens. They have a four-stage lifecycle including egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and adult. The adults having a short life, typically only a few weeks. But this is all the stuff of textbooks, I want to consider the darker side of butterflies!

Common blue butterflies mating

It’s important to note the adult form of a butterfly serves only one purpose, to replicate itself. Yes, it’s all about sex.

Many butterflies are territorial, with males fighting off any trespassers. Despite appearances they are strong fliers. Many species migrate 1,000’s of miles and fly at heights over 15,000ft! I once watched a chaffinch try and snatch a comma butterfly out of the air as a snack. Over and over, the bird switched and struck, but at every turn the butterfly was quicker than the bird! Don’t be deceived that their broad colourful wings will limit their flight capacity.

Powerful flight, territorial tendencies, and a need to breed, means fights are common among butterflies. All this activity uses up a lot of energy but because butterflies don’t possess a mouth, they can’t eat to replace those burned calories. This could create an energy crisis, but they’ve solved the problem by having a proboscis – a built-in straw which can suck up energy rich liquids like nectar. Therefore, they hang around your flower beds on sunny days, on the prowl for ladies and a good place to find liquid nectar to drink while they wait. They’ll also happily eat specially-formulated butterfly food.

Butterflies feeding on a buddleia bush flowerhead

However, converting sugary nectar to energy takes time, so better still if they can find pre-fermented sugar as it’s a quicker energy hit. So now we find a bunch of male butterflies seeking out fermented sugar (rotting fruit etc), and then picking fights with each other!

When the males aren’t drinking and fighting, they’re off mud-puddling. This is an activity set to make them more attractive to females. This consists of finding nice soggy soil full of nutrients and minerals, all good stuff for making eggs. Mineral-rich soggy soil can be hard to find at the height of summer, so butterflies being adaptable will find alternatives. Much easier to find nice moist dung at this time of year; horse, cow, or dog it’s all the same to a horny butterfly. The minerals collected, along with sugary liquids are then packaged up (called a spermatophore) as a nuptial gift for any lucky lady.

Butterflies feeding on overripe blackberries

Back to the flower border we find a bunch of boys, drunk on fermented fruit, fighting over any female who happens along, asking for sex and offering her dubious gifts in return. Some recent research has even suggested the less successful a butterfly is at sexual conquest, the more they seek fermented drinks. Drowning their sorrows, no doubt for a life less lived!

Next time you smile at the delightful butterflies floating across your garden, remember (or not) the drunken, violent debauchery that’s actually occurring in front of you.


External sources/references

A-Z of butterflies
A gardener’s guide to butterfly-friendly plants

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