The first butterfly this year was the brimstone

A drink at the narcissus.
A drink at the narcissus.

BY today I expect to see ten different species of butterflies on the wing. As usual the first this year was the brimstone, that big yellow insect which our ancestors called ‘the butter-coloured fly’- hence the name butterfly.

Here he is in my photograph having a drink at the narcissus flower which blooms in early April outside the back door.

Mother gave me the bulbs for that twenty years ago and it always flowers early for the butter-coloured fly. This male brimstone has had to wait for a female.

She sensibly stays in bed in the thick ivy which grows around the oak trunk. A wonderful snug hibernaculum for the peacock butterfly too, and the comma.

Without this ivy on the trees, I would have far fewer butterflies. They are safe inside the dense growth for the first six months of their adult life.

The female brimstone ought to be called the cream coloured fly I suppose. She is almost white, but just as big as himself.

As soon as she wakes up she will be chased all over the wood and high up into the sky by the lusty males who have waited long enough for this moment.

Then she will lay her eggs on the undersides of the leaves where they are usually stuck firmly in place, one on each leaf.

The other butterfly which emerges from hibernation, the peacock, was mating here in Mid March. She will lay her eggs on nettles. I usually find a creche of twenty or thirty black caterpillars later in the spring.

One of the early butterflies is the grizzled skipper. This is so tiny it looks like a blue-bottle fly as it zips around the downland.

They can appear in the first week of April and she will lay her eggs on the leaves of the wild strawberry. I found one year the most astonishing sight of ten grizzled skippers feeding on the decaying body of a dead fox, drinking liquids.

You won’t find that behaviour in the textbooks-grizzled skippers are supposed just to nectar on flowers. Small whites and green-veined whites will appear now. These are usually lumped together with the large white as ‘cabbage whites’. Quite often even the female brimstone is called ‘ a funny sort of cabbage white’.

Mid April will see the first butterflies in the brown family, and that will be the speckled wood.

No mistaking this butterfly: the wings are heavily speckled with brown and cream dots like the dappled back of a fallow deer.

This lovely insect lives in the same shady places as the fallow deer where splashes of sunlight through the leaves make myriads of moving patterns.

Every woodland path has a speckled wood butterfly in mid April. Their children will fly in June and their grandchildren in August so there is a busy year ahead and it has started already.