Fraternizing with fritillaries

I have always had a fondness for butterflies.  My earliest memories are chasing them around the fields at the back of our house; hands cupped ready to capture their beauty in my tiny hands.   These small wonders of life, brimming with colour and movement, lit up the grasslands and meadows in our Hertfordshire village and inspired my wild imaginings.

It has only been in recent years, however, that I have really got to know them: the times of the year they represent, the places that they frequent, their habits and their fragilities.  And it is only now that I have the time to sit and contemplate them in the stillness of a life ungoverned by work schedules or responsibilities.

2020 hopefully marks the beginning of a new epoch for humankind.  The unsustainable norms that we had become so accustomed to have crumbled away and we are left seeking new goals and new ways of being. Humanity’s mistreatment of animals and their habitats has unleashed a viral monster that has rocked the world and laid bare the social injustices of global economies and the over-appropriation of the world’s resources.  Things are changing; times are different and the future more uncertain.

Meanwhile the butterflies come and go, pretty much as they always do; the tick tock of a butterfly season in a succession of diversity from the early holly blues and orange tips to the hairstreaks and the fritillaries.  Like magic, out comes the sun, out come the butterflies, and from nowhere they appear flittering around the vegetation in search of nectar and honeydew. As I chase them around the meadows,  I am transported back to my six-year old self, but this time chasing them with binoculars and a camera poised for the moment they stop, and a mind thirsting to get to know them better.

For the Marsh fritillary or the tiny Duke of Burgundy, spotting their whereabouts is like a game of hide and seek, but for others such as the large and flouncy Dark Green fritillary or the Silver Washed, just emerging now, their flight is so fast that you literally have to chase after them until they stop.

If it were possible to have a favourite species of butterfly, mine would undoubtedly be a fritillary (Heliconiinae).  I love their bright orangeness and the immediacy with which they fly; quickly and purposefully, chasing and dancing down the rides.  We have eight species of fritillary in the UK, most of which are woodland or chalk downland species.  I haven’t met all of them yet but hope to in time. No fritillary is particularly common. They are quite fussy as to where they live.   The High Brown, the Heath and the Glanville only exist now in one or two places whereas the Dark Green, the Pearl Bordered and the Silver Washed are more widespread.  These, and the sweet marsh fritillary which marks the shift between spring and summer, are my favourites.  Some are big and blousy where others are neat and sweet.

Butterflies appear as symbolic, beautiful and ‘other-worldly’ creatures in many cultures around the globe. They represent rebirth, transformation, hope, peace, and resurrection.  Perhaps that is why they are so poignant for us now.