A couple of weeks ago I was at the Ilkley Playhouse absorbed in what was happening on stage when my attention was suddenly distracted. A butterfly was caught in the lights as it fluttered to and fro high above the stage. It was a large one, showing orange in the spotlight – probably a Peacock disturbed from its hibernation by the warmth and brightness. Not particularly surprising, I suppose, but then I remembered a similar experience in that very auditorium while I was enjoying an item from the Ilkley Literature Festival over six weeks previously. Could this be the same insect? If so, its hibernation must be being frequently disturbed. Since hibernation is all about conserving energy, being constantly woken up for an evening’s high flying is not a very economic way of going about it. Could an insect survive such trials and disruptions?
I needed some answers so, as usual, contacted WNS members more knowledgeable in insect ways than I am. I also visited the Butterfly Conservation website – always a good information source. As insects are not warm blooded they depend upon the ambient temperature to get going so they have developed various ways of surviving our winters – migration or overwintering as eggs, pupae or, like my butterfly, as adults. So much I already knew. I’ve been using the term “hibernation” rather loosely in this article. Strictly speaking butterflies are in a state of dormancy not full hibernation, so they can, and do, wake up and move about should conditions warm up. How often this can happen before their energy reserves run out will depend on how well fed and fit they were when they started. Certainly a working theatre, though full of tempting dark spaces, is not a good choice.
The last two summers have been good for butterflies so it’s quite likely that we shall find some in our homes. With Christmas approaching, central heating turned up and spare bedrooms in use, it’s also likely that we shall wake them up. Butterfly Conservation had some good advice as to what to do. First catch your butterfly – gently (they’re delicate creatures) – put it in a box in a cool spot to calm down, then relocate it in an unheated room. Most important – don’t forget to let it out when the weather warms up. A note in that new 2015 diary might be a good idea. Meanwhile, I still don’t know whether I’ve seen two butterflies at the Playhouse – or just the one.
Wharfedale Naturalists Society
Photo by Walter Isack (isiwal) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons