17. The 2008 quest for Leptidea sinapis.

(and how it all ‘fell to pieces’ as time went by!)


10th February 2008. There’s no time like the present, they say, for starting a project; getting one’s shoulder to the wheel, one’s nose to the grindstone and so forth. A serious project like this needs forethough, long-range planning &c. So we began today. Ah: Leptidea sinapis: what is it? Quite simply the Wood White butterfly. For quite some years we have wanted to see one. Every time we have been out pottering around in the countryside (which isn’t as often as it should be), we have always looked at small, white butterflies going past, in case one of them might prove to be a Wood White. Why the fascination with this particular species? I hear you ask. Is it large, impressive? Does it soar on high, flap its wings occasionally and then glide loftily around forest clearings in an assured & serene manner, as if it were the lord of all it surveys? Well; actually, no. It is relatively small (wingspan ~40mm). Moreover its flight has been described as ‘weak and irresolute’ [P.B.M. Allen: ‘Moths And Memories’, Watkins & Doncaster, London 1948, p. 289; but this was Allen in humorous vein]; and as ‘feeble, yet somehow determined’ [Adrian M Riley: ‘British and Irish Butterflies’, Brambleby Books, Luton, England 2007, p.77.] So really, it is a modest, quite unspectacular and even retiring example of a butterfly. And that, of course, is precisely why I want to see one!


Now this new book by Adrian M. Riley is truly superb. I mentioned it on a previous page when my friends gave me a copy; but I hadn’t read it then. Now I have read it from cover to cover, and though I am a rank amateur in all this, and in no way qualified to comment on it, still I am awe-struck by the amount of invaluable data it contains, and the almost incredible amount of sheer hard work that has gone into it. Riley has personally taken fine photographs of virtually every species and definitely of all sub-species of butterfly in Britain and Ireland! Surely, nobody can possibly have done that before? All the data & descriptions of these butterflies and their life-cycles, larval foodplants &c., are set out in the fullest detail. Including exactly where to see the various butterfly species. No longer do we have to look at each and every small, white butterfly that goes past, in the ludicrous hope that somehow, one of them might be a Wood White; and also that we could distinguish it by just seeing it at a distance. But what does Leptidea sinapis actually look like? I have cribbed the picture at left from ‘The Butterflies of the British Isles’, Richard South, F.E.S., Frederick Warne & Co., London, 1906. I dare say it’s out of copyright now; or if not, the shade of Richard South, and possibly even that of Frederick Warne, will look tolerantly on my cribbing of it for a constructive purpose? Also, you will never see a Wood White settled in this posture, as it would seem they always settle with their wings vertical. This is an early colour photo. of a dead male specimen. Of course, nobody really ‘collects’ butterflies any more, except by photographing them (other than, I suppose, for special and duly authorised scientific and conservational purposes). This gives rise to the fact that in the modern books on butterflies, you will not see a photograph of the upper side of, e.g. a Grayling Butterfly; because the Grayling always settles, like the Wood White, with its wings vertical. So to see what the upper side of a Grayling (or a Wood White) looks like you will have to have recourse to some older books, or a collection in a local museum &c. Though you may get a tantalising, ‘instantaneous’ view of the upper side of one, as it flies past!


Thanks to Riley, I learned that the closest place where I might ever hope to see a Wood White, is only 28 miles away from where I live. The Nature Reserve called Monkwood is owned jointly by Butterfly Conservation and Worcestershire Wildlife Trust. If you want to know more about it, and other such Nature Reserves, just go to http://www.butterfly-conservation.org .


But what does it look like now? I mean in early February 2008: today, 10-02-08 to be precise?


Here are some shots of it taken this morning.



It was pretty ‘squelchy’ today. Although yesterday was sunny & warm (10°C), there was a frost last night, and I was glad I had taken my gloves with me. This is the main path which goes through the centre of the reserve. You are of course not supposed to leave the path; but this shouldn’t matter in our Quest, as the Wood White flies at the edges of woodland, not deep inside it. As far as I can tell, hardly any Lepidoptera fly deep inside woodland, which is just as well. The few people I met on my walk were inevitably accompanied by one or more dogs, and exchanged affable greetings.







Catkins: Early Heralds of Spring!






Here, by the side of the path are piled logs, the result of regular management of this ancient woodland. The original Monkwood seems to date back for around 600 years, and was doubtless larger then; but in the 1950s it was re-planted with broad-leaved trees to provide a source of suitable wood for paint-brush handles for the long-established firm of Harris & Co. Their excellent paint-brushes were certainly legendary for quality & durability! I had one of theirs myself, a 2" brush, with which I painted all the (seventeen!) doors of my old house, some more than once, plus the window frames and skirting boards; all this, many years ago. Yet afterwards, the brush was still practically unworn. But to return to the point in hand: these logs, already liberally coated with moss & with brambles encroaching, will soon become an excellent site for beetles and all manner of other insects & creatures of many kinds - if, indeed, they have not already begun to do so.


(This is the first entry on this page. Riley tells us that the Wood White normally flies in the last two weeks in June. However, in favourable locations & weather, it can be ‘double brooded’. In that case, earlier emergence of the butterflies takes place even in early May. Such butterflies would lay eggs which would result in a second generation, flying from mid-July until the end of August. Whether Monkwood is in a favourable latitude for this to occur I don’t know; neither - of course - do we know what sort of a summer we have coming in 2008. Well, we only have to wait three or four months to see what will happen! More later…)



9th April 2008.  The lepidoptera season has begun! By which I only mean, lepidoptera in our garden. On Sunday night, 6th., I saw a noctuid moth at a light in Plymouth. As you can see in the picture we had snow in Birmingham the night before (photo. 8 a.m. 6th April). It was frosty even in Plymouth on the morning of 7th April. But about mid-day today I saw a Peacock, Inachis io, in the small front garden here (Birmingham) basking in the sun although the air was cold. The forecast for today is a maximum of 8ºC and a minimum of 1ºC, and the next few days little better, with rain each day. The weather has been very erratic and generally bad for the past few weeks with much wind and hardly any warm days. Still, the rooks are building their nests quite high up in their trees; this is said to be a sign of a good summer to come! As soon as the Spring really arrives and the ground starts to warm up a little, we will be planting some stuff likely to be of interest to moths & butterflies. Several weeks ago I took 3 cuttings of Buddleia from along the canal, and although apparently Buddleia might not be all that good at growing from cuttings, they are still alive and I think they have started to grow. It is hoped that they are the ordinary pale mauve buddleias. This sort, it appears, is preferred by lepidoptera, while the white and dark violet varieties may have much less nectar.



13th May 2008. ‘True Spring’ has indeed been late this year, as always seemed likely. I left for the Keswick Jazz Festival on Monday 5th May and returned on Monday 12th. What a transformation in 5 weeks! When I left, the sycamore had only been ‘thinking about’ coming into leaf; but only 8 days later, just look at it. Blossom, rhododendrons: everything starting up. Along with abundance of Speckled Wood butterflies, and a few small blue butterflies which must be the Holly Blue – I think this is usually the only ‘urban blue’?


Still, this page is not about my very modest garden: it is about the Quest for Leptidea sinapis; so off we went to Monkwood to see how it was getting on.


As you will see from the following shots, everything is greening up nicely, and there are butterflies to be seen; though not – as yet – the Wood White. It is indeed too early for them anyway, especially in view of the late Spring. We saw the Peacock, Inachios io; many Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria; an almost equal abundance of the Orange-Tip, Anthocharis cardamines; some small whites which were definitely just ‘small and white’ and not the Wood White. We met a couple of folk who were touring around and had called at Monkwood as they had not been there before. They knew Monkwood was a locality for sinapis; moreover, they had seen it before in other places, and assured me that beginner though I was, it would be quite impossible to mistake the flight of sinapis, if only I were to see one. This was encouraging.



Everything is bursting forth with the fresh vigour of Spring, after too much delay. Still, this path may be too small for butterflies to patrol? We shall see…



A more open area like this might suit sinapis better?



Here, the peacock Inachis io basks in the sun on a tree stump. However familiar the peacock may be to us all, it is a ‘new species’ to my camera, so we are quite pleased; this is only tempered by the fact that we could not go nearer to it, as we must remain on the paths, and not go trampling about among the natural vegetation. H’mm. I wonder whether we will observe this rule if – when – we  see sinapis?



Here is the same log-pile we photographed in February. Some of the rich green moss has receded for the time being, but it will be back… By the way, talking of decaying wood, we definitely saw a real hornet, Vespula crabro today. Ah, gone are the ignorant days of 2007, when we thought a Vespula germanica (which is just a big wasp) was a hornet! No: we know better now. This very big buzzing wasp-like thing with its fat abdomen and above all the reddish tinge at the front of its thorax gave it away in a couple of seconds. But what has decaying wood got to do with it? Simply that later we saw another one (or possibly the same one again), and it flew into a hole at the bottom of a decaying tree-stump, where the nest must be located…



Many larvae, presumably mostly lepidopterous, were to be seen hanging from trees on silk threads. Presumably they ‘save themselves’ should they accidentally fall, by this means? There were so many hanging like this, and it was not a really windy day, that we began to think: ‘Can larvae be so clumsy that dozens, scores even, accidentally fall?’ On reflection, probably only one in a thousand ever fall… which means that there are – thankfully –

 countless tens of thousands of caterpillars up in the trees of Monkwood! We watched this relatively large one (~3cm) climbing back up its thread. After many attempts, it eventually gained its foothold on a leaf. We hope it will be more careful in future: or else its Genetic Combination will be lost. But perhaps that is what is supposed to happen to the genes of clumsy larvae?




We already have several pictures of Pararge aegeria on this page, but I like this one, because the sunlight is shining through the wings, and the overlap of the fore- and hind-wing gives an odd green shade – which may simply be the reflection of the leaf upon which it reposes, for all I know. At any rate, thus our second visit to Monkwood was concluded. Who knows what the future holds? Perhaps just two or three weeks from now, our Quest will be fulfilled?


Comment, 20th November 2008. Alas, dear reader; it was not to be! As the summer of 2008 advanced, two main things happened. The first was that the weather proved to be chronically atrocious. I would sit for hours in my spare time, out in the little sun-room on the back of my house, to the drumming accompaniment on the roof of what seemed to be perpetual rain. Doubtless you did much the same? I can’t remember a summer when the weather was so bloody awful. Second, the number of gigs that I had to do seemed legion & endlessly so. If I had two or three days off, it rained constantly, so that all Lepidoptera would be safely tucked away in the shelter of ivy &c. While if the sun shone at all, then I was driving up and down motorways to gigs, with no chance to visit Monkwood. Oh dear; what an ignominious ending to The Quest. Please accept my apologies for being ‘A House of False Alarms’. Well, we shall just have to begin it again next year, I suppose?



Page revised 20th November 2008.