…in the family of things

Michael Kane


The name butterfly was first used to describe the yellow brimstone butterfly. It was actually known as the “butter coloured fly’ and that later became butterfly. We have in Ireland 34 species of butterfly and over 1,400 different moths. Most of the moths are night flyers. Most have been around for eons but lately, two butterfly species have come to our shore: the Essex skipper and the comma. They have come as a result of climate change, some would say. The comma first appeared in the South East about ten years ago and is now widespread in most of the south of the country. It has now become a resident. Red admirals were also thought to have been migratory but have also been granted resident status! 


Some have short seasons such as the orange tip – plentiful in April to the end of June – and whose favourite flower is the lady’s smock or cuckoo flower, on which it lays its eggs. The caterpillars then feed on its ripening seed pods. 


Some of the more regularly seen at this time, though this may change from area to area, are: the peacock, the small tortoiseshell – it shares our homes over the winter; red admirals – if you have apple trees check them out and the silver-washed fritillary, which is a large butterfly. And then there are the blues, a small butterfly. There is the holly blue, the common blue and the small blue and then our smallest butterfly, the small copper which likes ox-eye daisy and yarrow.


And the browns: the meadow brown, which favours long undisturbed grass for its eggs and caterpillars; the ringlet, which is dark brown and has a white edge around its wing; the speckled wood which has as you would expect, many white round spots on its light brown wings. And of course, we must not forget the whites: the orange tip mentioned earlier, the green veined and the large and small whites which were known as cabbage whites because of their preference for cabbage as a nursery for their eggs and caterpillars.


My butterfly of the month is the painted lady – an exotic sounding name! It comes from faraway places. It used to be called the thistle butterfly because of its preference for that plant. It also likes nettles for its eggs and caterpillars, but you will find it feeding on buddleia, tall verbena, sedum and most flowering plants. This butterfly begins its journey in Morocco, North Africa, reaching here in May and begins its journey back in August. Our May arrivals are the fifth or sixth generation from those that began in North Africa. But it is believed that a respectable height and a good tail wind makes the journey back a one generation affair.


Radar in Hampshire, UK, operated by Rothamsted Research revealed that around 11 million high-flying painted ladies entered the UK in spring 2009 with 26 million departing in autumn.


Butterflies are deep and powerful representations of life and many cultures associate them with our souls and see them as symbols representing endurance, change, hope and life. Butterfly metamorphosis is truly one of nature’s most miraculous events. Female butterflies will only lay their eggs on specific host plants because they’re the only appropriate food for her offspring. Caterpillars start out tiny but with their specialized diet and voracious appetites will grow at an astonishing rate, nearly doubling in size every day! We can help them by safeguarding their host plants – long called weeds – but now becoming known as flowers out of place. Nettles are the common host plant for many of them. 


Some of our herbs like marjoram, chives and thyme are very attractive to butterflies and good for ourselves too. And flowers like michaelmas daisies, tall verbena, buddleia, lavender and sedum or ice plant are very attractive to butterflies as well as pleasing to the human eye and soul. 


In this way we can play our part and help in no small way “……in the family of things”.


Some resources for you to check out: Discovering Irish Butterflies & Their Habitats by J.M. Harding is an excellent book on butterflies and where to find them. www.butterflyireland.com gives very good information and www.butterflyconservation.ie gives a good insight into what is being done in that area. You can also report sightings of butterflies to them. 

July/August, Vol 85 No. 6

Butterflies…in the family of things


Trees in full leaf in their many hues of green; flowers coming into bloom with their attendant pollinators. There is a hum of busy business about this time of the year. 


And so everyday here in St Patrick’s is a celebration of and for trees and of those who planted them. A celebration of the tree itself and all it gives life to and sustains from buzzard to wren to goldcrest (smaller than the wren), from butterfly to bee. Not forgetting every tiny insect and all the creepy crawlies that also share the tree. We are thankful for its fruits, shelter and for just being a tree. 


Birdsong has quietened a bit now but the young, calling out to be fed, can be heard in echoing cacophonies from every tree and bush. Parent birds busily searching for food can be seen with mouthfuls of all kinds of everything. Not a good time to be a worm or insect! 


The swifts are back with their high-pitched screeching and jet-like flight. Their aerial displays are a beauty to behold. They are one of the fastest birds in Ireland spending practically all their time flying. They are grounded only when nesting. In Irish, they are known as gabhlan gaoithe (who goes with the wind), belonging to the ornithological family Apodidae meaning “footless”. Their legs are short and their feet are very small and so they are not able to walk. They are highfliers and cover the journey from South Africa and back every year arriving in early May. They head back between late July and early September. They have been recorded covering 13,000 to 17,000 miles on migration from UK to South Africa and back, eating and sleeping on the wing. They are not related to the house martin or the swallow. 


Sad to say, that like all our wildlife, and especially our avian visitors from Africa, it is estimated that there has been a 40% decrease in their numbers in the last 15 years. Loss of suitable nest sites would seem to be one factor as we replace or upgrade our older buildings like barns and old warehouses. The swift comes to our towns and houses every year for about four months and once a nest site is found, it will remain faithful to it for the rest of its life and the young will do likewise. It is estimated that a breeding pair will consume up to half a million small flying insects. 

The website swiftconservation.ie can advise on what we can do to help and encourage these beauties of our summer skies by providing new nest sites. It also has a very helpful booklet: “We are Swifts – We are in trouble”. 


Here in Kiltegan, the nest sites are under the roof of High Park House, front and back. They also have some noisy semidetached neighbours – jackdaws and starlings – nesting close by on a lower level. House martins nest under the eaves of the main college. Their numbers are down by more than half of earlier years and sparrows have moved into some of the abandoned nests. Sparrows are opportunists and seem to like these high rises. Swallows are also about in numbers and they nest wherever they find a suitable site, usually on a ledge or cross timber in a sheltered spot. Many do so in the farm sheds. Nearby there are some in the outhouses and more in Slí an Chroí and there are two pairs in the boiler house of our office building – a boiler house now out of use since we have moved towards fossil free fuel for our heating. A slatted door gives them easy entry and exit.


The sand martins join them above our heads, but they also nest in holes in riverbanks and in old sandpits. They scoop out a hole from which they launch into the air. All three can be seen fly-catching at speed over the lake. And it is possible for the attentive and sharp-eyed watchers to tell them apart – with a little bit of practice that is! The house martins are identified by their prominently white chin and body, the swallows by their long-forked tail and the sand martins by being noticeably browner than the other two. The swifts usually fly higher and faster but can be recognised by the scimitar-shaped wings.


Another scarce African visitor is the spotted flycatcher which is a small bird, robin-sized but of a more slender build. One had frequented an old swallow’s nest in the north wing of the college but has been noted by its absence for the last few seasons. So it was very good to see one among the willows last year. I am hoping to see more of them this summer.


It is also high butterfly flight time. Watch out for them. Take note and we will look at them next month as they will still be around.

June 2020, Vol. 85 No. 5

High Summer… in the family of things

Fr Michael Kane from Co Wexford was ordained in 1968. He worked for many years in Kitui, Kenya. He is now based in Kiltegan. 

©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine


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