Bounty of butterflies

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on lavender at Gunby

With its many different flowers and sunny, sheltered areas the Gunby gardens are a haven for many different species of butterflies. Find out more about the butterflies and moths that call Gunby their home.

Red Admiral

The red admiral is one of the most striking of all British butterflies and, though it isn’t immediately obvious, its beauty is reflected in its name; the name 'red admiral' being a corruption of the original 18th-century name 'red admirable'. The combination of its black velvety wings, contrasting with stunning orange lines and white spots makes it one of our most easily identified species. You can often find this lovely butterfly on the sea holly near the greenhouse. 

To call red admirals British is probably a slight misinterpretation since most individuals will have come from the continent. This is a strong migrant species which, every year, returns to us from the Mediterranean region.

The first to reach us arrive in March and they seek out nettles on which to lay eggs. During the summer the eggs hatch and the caterpillars develop so that by August we should have our own crop of adult red admirals.

Red Admiral butterfly near the Gunby greenhouse
Red Admiral butterfly near the Gunby greenhouse
Red Admiral butterfly near the Gunby greenhouse

Small Tortoiseshell

When it looks for a safe place to hibernate, the small tortoiseshell will often hide away in an outhouse or shed, so our gardens offer great refuges for them through the winter. Upon emerging in spring, their priority is to find nectar so Gunby's well-stocked flower garden is their saviour again. This frequent visitor can often be found on Gunby's lavender.

The small tortoiseshell is widespread over the whole of the UK and it has two broods every year, the first brood of eggs is laid in May by adults which have hibernated through the winter.  Adults from this first batch of eggs begin flying during July and their eggs ensure a second population of adult butterflies in late summer.  It is only the adults from this second brood which will hibernate over winter.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on Gunby's lavender
Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on lavender
Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on Gunby's lavender

Peacock 

The peacock butterfly is a gloriously vibrant addition to the spring scene. To us the colourful eye-spots on its upper-wings, obviously reminiscent of a peacock, are simply beautiful but to the butterfly they are its primary means of defence. If disturbed the peacock butterfly can rub its wings together to create a hissing sound; this combined with its large eye-spots will help to deter predators.

" Just living is not enough, said the butterfly, one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower."
- Hans Christian Andersen

In the weeks leading up to hibernation, peacock butterflies convert some of their blood sugar into glycerol to act as a kind of anti-freeze in anticipation of the forthcoming cold period. Then the peacock finds a safe place with relatively constant temperatures and shelter from the cold winds, such as a hole in a tree or inside a shed. Here the butterfly will fold its wings and sleep, its dull underside helping it to disappear in the darkness.

This strategy means that the peacock is always one of the first butterflies we see in the spring. During March, if we get a warm period of weather, the first peacocks will leave their hiding place to go in search of their first meal of the year.

Two Peacock butterflies and a Red Admiral
Peacock butterfly and Red Admiral butterfly at Gunby
Two Peacock butterflies and a Red Admiral

Comma 

When the comma spreads its wings to bask in the sun it reveals a beautiful combination of orange and brown markings a little reminiscent of the fritillary butterfly family. Look carefully at the comma’s wings and you will see that not only is it colourful but that it also has an intricate outline.

It isn’t immediately obvious why this butterfly should have evolved such a sculpted shape but when its wings are closed all is revealed. The dark brown of it’s under wing combined with this unusual shape helps the comma appear nothing more than a dead leaf; a fantastic piece of deception and camouflage.

Look closely at the butterfly’s under wing and you will see the comma-shaped white mark in the centre of its hind wing which is the reason for its common name.

Comma butterfly enjoying the sunshine
Comma butterfly at Gunby
Comma butterfly enjoying the sunshine

Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper

The Meadow Brown is mainly brown with washed-out orange patches on the forewings. The best way to identify the 'brown' butterflies is by looking at the eyespots on their wings.

Meadow Brown butterfly
Meadow Brown butterfly at Gunby
Meadow Brown butterfly

The combination of its relatively large size, orange patches on the forewings only, one eyespot on the forewing and none at all on the hindwings, is unique to the Meadow Brown. The Meadow Brown also has only one small white 'pupil' in the eyespots, instead of two like the Gatekeeper.

Both butterflies are frequent visitors to the Gunby parkland, especially around the ice house pond.

See if you can spot any interesting butterflies in the parkland
Gatekeeper butterfly in the Gunby grounds
See if you can spot any interesting butterflies in the parkland

Painted Lady

This modest lady can often be found in a sunny spot in the walled gardens.

Where do painted ladies go when the summer ends? One of the great mysteries of the butterfly world has been solved by high-tech radar and 10,000 members of the public, who have tracked the butterfly on its epic autumn journey from the Arctic Circle to west Africa. 

Rather than hibernate, adult painted ladies are constantly on the move to find optimum breeding conditions after which their offspring take up the migratory baton. Up to six generations make the 9,000-mile round trip from Africa to northern Europe and back again each year.

There's lots to eat and drink for this painted Lady butterfly
Painted Lady butterfly at Gunby
There's lots to eat and drink for this painted Lady butterfly

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

If you're really patient and a bit lucky, you may spot one of these large moths in the gardens.

Hummingbird hawk moths beat their wings at such speed they emit an audible hum. Their name comes from their similar feeding patterns to hummingbirds. They're found in Britain all summer long, especially in southern parts and in Ireland. Active in both sunny and overcast conditions, hummingbird hawk moths are strongly attracted to flowers with a plentiful supply of nectar like Gunby's honeysuckle and buddleia. Studies reveal a remarkable memory, since they return to the same flowerbeds at the same time everyday.

It's not easy to photograph these fast moving moths
Hummingbird Hawk Moth in the Gunby gardens
It's not easy to photograph these fast moving moths