Derbyshire Wildlife - Peacock butterfly
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 August 2016
Paul Hobson investigates the lovely Peacock butterfly, a familiar visitor to our gardens this month
As winter ends and the first days of spring sunshine warm the air our first butterflies emerge. Usually, however, these are brief explorative flights. The night air is still cold and as we all know snow and frost are never far away and can quickly reappear right up and into May.
Butterflies have two methods that they can employ to avoid the deadly, penetrating ice crystals of winter. The first is simple – fly south to warmer climes in Southern Europe. The other method is really a set of variations on the same theme – stick it out in this country. They vary in which stage of the life cycle they overwinter – some do this in the egg stage, others as small caterpillars, some as pupae and a select few as adults. The latter method seems to be the most risky as few have opted for it. The main problem is that a butterfly is large compared to an egg or pupa so is more at risk of a mouse attack. Eggs and caterpillars can be hidden in small cracks in the bark of trees or even in unopened leaf buds. Pupae can be safe resting underground or hanging disguised as dead bits of plants.
One of our most gorgeous butterflies which overwinters and one we are all familiar with is the Peacock. A warm spring day or even a late winter’s one when the sun warms the still air, will often see this absolute stunner venture forth to soak up the early rays. As the afternoon cools the butterfly seeks its place of slumber once again and hopes that the next time it flies the warmth will be a little more permanent.
When we watch butterflies we marvel at their beauty yet rarely view them as complex animals like birds. A lot of this is due to their ephemeral lifestyle – they never seem to be around for long. Also one adult Peacock looks just like the next one so we often don’t see them as individuals. Another factor that plays into our simplistic view is that they are usually silent. We don’t recognise any song as we do with the male blackbird who sings beautifully from the top of a garden tree or TV aerial.
This begs the question: Do butterflies exhibit complex lifestyles and behaviours, or are they simply nature’s paintings drifting around on flimsy wings visiting lovely flowers? Perhaps the Peacock may change your view.
Adult Peacocks emerge in spring. The males can only mate once so they must make sure that they are in a position to attract a female. They do this by ‘owning’ an area or territory. This will contain all the things that a female Peacock wants – somewhere to stock up on energy-rich nectar and somewhere to lay her eggs (usually nettles). In many cases, however, these territories may be in short supply so the resident male Peacock has to fight for it. He will perch on high where there is a good view of his patch and whenever he sees anything winging in that resembles another Peacock he will powerfully fly out to meet it. If it does prove to be a rival he will try to drive it off. Sometimes this works but not always. If he knows his patch well he is more likely to win the aerial skirmish but in some cases he will just have to live with another male poaching his patch.
The female Peacock is quite rightly a choosy individual and wants the best from her partner. To get him to prove himself she will fly around a fair bit and get her new husband-to-be to demonstrate his powers of flight. If he cuts the mustard he gets his one and only chance at mating.
Once fertilised she will lay her eggs on a healthy patch of nettles where the black spiky larvae will live until they pupate later in the year. He is now redundant and since he can’t mate again he has a short life!
The Peacock butterfly got its name because of the huge ‘eyes’ on the wings that resemble those on the tail feathers of a male peacock (the bird). The theory is that the huge eyes startle a predator, such as a flycatcher, and give the butterfly’s powerful flight muscles the chance to effect an escape.
The Peacock’s Latin name is Aglais io. According to mythology Io was the daughter of Inarchis and the nymph, Melia. She was extremely beautiful and Zeus fell in love with her, turning her into a heifer to hide her from his wife, Hera. However, Hera wasn’t to be fooled and sent gadflies to torment Io by stinging her, so eventually Zeus turned her back into human form. She later married, becoming the ancestor to many kings, including Heracles, Minos and Perseus.
Every time I see a Peacock I immediately think of Io and the butterfly’s complex life story. Whenever I see the huge, colourful eyes spots I am held spellbound and thank my lucky stars that so stunning an insect is still common and can be seen in so many gardens right across Derbyshire.