Now you see one, now you don’t - the fast brown argus

The Brown Argus.
The Brown Argus.

SECOND broods of brown argus butterflies should be out right now and still flying in the first weeks of September.

They are gorgeous: so neat, so quick, so full of dazzling flight. It’s a case of now you see one, now you don’t.

But after forty years of recording their numbers every week in the same patch of ground I know where to find them.

The ones I see are the Kingley Vale downland meadows and being one of the lovely blue family they breed on hot slopes and meadows where they enjoy sporting flight at tremendous speed.

Much of the time they look like a bluebottle fly or some to her fast small bulky insect but they don’t make any sound as they flash around you in tiny circles.

For me they always represent the height and heat of a perfect summer day on the Downs.

I don’t have a record of how they acquired that name of argus.

They were known to the entomologist Petiver in 1717 and he perhaps named the butterfly.

It seems obvious to me that with that distinctive semi circle of bright orange dots all the way around the outer wings, it is named after the Ancient Greek Argus, son of Arestor.

He was the God with a hundred eyes fifty of which he kept open, the other fifty he kept closed as they slept.

Argus Panoptes was known as the one who sees all. He had huge strength, a giant who had killed a bull with his bare hands, that had been ravaging Arcadia.

When Argus was tricked into closing all one hundred eyes he was slain and the priestess Hera placed all eyes across the tail of the peacock.

And some I should think across this little jewel the brown argus Butterfly. Seems a reasonable assumption.

The photograph by Brian Henham of Chichester is of a pristine newly emerged female, brighter than the male but otherwise the identical likeness.

She was off to find a mate first of all when the couple would revolve around one another in a dizzy whirligig of chasing.

When fertilised she would be looking for rock rose flowers. These rather delicate helianthemums with the crinkly yellow petals are the food plants of downland argus.

In dunes and heaths the argus searches out common stork’sbill or even dove’s foot cranesbill for the caterpillars to eat.

Also part of the equation is the presence of ants which will take the baby caterpillars down underground to tend them through the winter, hooked as they become on the sugary drug the caterpillars exude for them to taste.

In this way the infant lives safely underground, before becoming hungry and eating its protector’s own children.

A fabulous little beast, like its giant namesake of the classical world of old.