FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

Know the name, unlock the story (Enewsletter April13)

Each animal and plant that we share our planet with has a story to tell: a story of survival and a story of exquisite and beautiful adaptation to its particular niche in the natural world. Recognising and naming animals and plants is the key that unlocks their stories.


If I know that the butterfly I see feeding on Dandelion in my garden in April is a Peacock, then I know – or I can find out – something of its story. I will realise that this little butterfly hatched from an egg the previous summer and, as a caterpillar, fed on stinging nettles until it grew fat and restless and changed into a chrysalis. Over the space of a few weeks inside the chrysalis, its body broke down and reformed – it seems miraculously – into this beautiful adult butterfly I see in front of me.

Because I know its name, I know its story. I know that after bursting from its chrysalis, this butterfly spent the late days of last summer feeding on nectar – perhaps from my own garden – to build up the energy it would need to overcome one or the major challenges of its remarkable life. For this seemingly fragile little insect toughed out the winter by hibernating in some cold dry spot, perhaps under some bark or in a garden shed, to emerge into the sunny warmth of this spring day in my garden.

Orange tip

Because I know its name, I know its story. I know that over the next few weeks it will seek out more nectar-bearing flowers, find a mate and lay the next generation of eggs in a sunny patch of stinging nettles in some quite corner. Then as these eggs hatch and develop as caterpillars, the overwintering generation of Peacocks to which my butterfly belongs will all die, their role in this amazing natural cycle fully played out.

For a while, in the middle of summer, I know that I will see few, if any, Peacocks. But because I know its name, I know that this is not the end of the story.  I know that later in the summer the new generation of adult Peacocks will emerge from their chrysalises and the whole wonderful cycle will begin a new turn.

Red -admiralThis is just a small part of the story of one of our garden butterflies. Two other beautiful spring butterflies – Small Tortoiseshells and Commas – share the Peacock’s habit of winter hibernation, but other facets of their stories are subtly different. Still other butterflies adopt radically different winter strategies. The wonderful Orange-tip (where else in nature – apart from the eponymous fruit – can you see orange as orange as the wingtips of a male Orange-tip?) survives the winter not by hibernating as an adult but by resting in a prolonged chrysalis stage. Still others, like the Painted Lady and some Red Admirals, avoid the British winters by migrating to southern Europe before returning to our shores and gardens in the summer!

There are as many different stories as there are different butterflies in your garden and all you need are the names to unlock them. There’s a lot of information that will help you to identify our butterflies including the excellent FSC fold-out chart and range of courses.  Their stories can be found in many good books and websites, for example http://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk, just waiting to be unlocked by you!

FSC butterfly courses

Butterfly fold out chart



Thursday, March 28, 2013