by Margaret Powling-

I don’t think there can be many people who aren’t captivated by the beauty of butterflies.  I call them Beauty and Beast, not as in the children’s story Beauty and the Beast.  They are one and the same.  Beast when they are hungry caterpillars and Beauty when they emerge from the chrysalis as a delicate flying insect.

In 2009 in an article in the magazine, Country Living, it said that “British butterflies have had a hard time in the last 50 years.  Intensive farming, the loss of open land to housing and changes in land-use have caused dramatic declines in many of the  UK’s 59 resident breeding species.”  It went on to say, more hopefully, “But a growing awareness of the importance of garden wildlife shows that even the smallest plots can attract butterflies.”  Indeed, only one butterfly can be considered a nuisance (the Large White) “It’s speckled black and yellow caterpillars shred nasturtiums and garden brassicas. All others are a delight to behold.”

I am not a naturalist, but I love butterflies.  To different cultures, butterflies mean different things.  I read recently that Ancient Egyptians used butterfly symbols in their tombs and temples and in China, two butterflies dancing together in the air represents love. 

My three photos above were taken in a friend’s garden, in the grounds of Knightshayes Court, Devon (NT) and in Jack’s Patch Garden Centre, Teignmouth.


I have been thinking about butterflies quite a lot since recently buying the children’s book, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.  In the Nature Notes in that book it says, “Butterflies are a group of day-flying moths.”  I never knew that.  Indeed, that reminds me of when, more than 20 years ago,  I interviewed  Neil Garrick-Maidment, a seahorse specialist, and from him I learned that seahorses are fish.  I thought they were crustaceans.  I don’t know why, I just did.  I also learned that the males have the babies.  What a tremendously good idea!  Therefore, butterflies are really day-flying moths (moths, or the majority of them, fly at night) and they differ from true moths in having club-tips to their antennae, and no mechanism for hooking their fore wings and hind wings together.  Indeed, there are only 68 species of butterfly, of which [say the Nature Notes, and this was almost 40 years ago, so doubtless numbers have since declined] 10 are rare, compared with over 2000 moths.

This was a good basic guide for our children even though the illustrations are paintings rather than photographs.  My own favourite book on butterflies is Beningfield’s Butterflies, by the late wild life artist, Gordon Beningfield.  (1936-1998)

This book is a joy from beginning to end.  Beningfield shows butterflies in their natural surroundings.  In his Introduction, he says “My paintings try to communicate my feelings about the unspoilt countryside while it is still there to be seen. Perhaps if my pictures succeed in evoking the beauty and delicacy of butterflies, they will help a little towards encouraging their conservation.”



Photo Credits to the three above paintings:  Gordon Beningfield’s Butterflies (Chatto & Windus)

That was almost 40 years ago.  Since then, as we know, butterflies have continued their decline.  Only two weeks ago in the Weekend, a weekly publication by Waitrose supermarket, it says,  “Number of 40 out of 57 butterfly species declined last year.  The Lulworth skipper fared worse, falling by 60% from 2015 to 2016.”

It was Beningfield’s book, I am sure, that led to him being asked to produce illustrations for four postage stamps, which I bought and which I have kept with his book ever since.

While researching butterflies recently for a forthcoming article I came across a book which I promptly ordered and it arrived this morning:

It says that Peter Marren  “is a wildlife writer and repentant collector who has long since turned to conservation.  Rainbow Dust is a distillation of nearly half a century of watching, reading and thinking about butterflies.”

I have already read a page or two and straight away I know I will enjoy this book, the guy speaks from the heart, and from personal experience.  The very best way to write, I think. 

This final photo for today has nothing whatsoever to do with butterflies, I just like it which I think is a good enough excuse for posting it here.

Taken in Hidcote Manor Gardens (NT)

Until next time.



Margaret Powling


  1. Lara

    I wonder if the decline in numbers of butterflies is also due to widespread chemical usage – pesticides, etc. I have owned cats and dogs for many years and so have resisted the use of pesticides in my homes unless absolutely necessary (eg an extensive termite treatment about 20 years ago). I’m not a gardener so am not fussy about the garden at all. I pour boiling water on weeds that grow thru the cracks in pavers, etc and pull out the rest by hand if they bother me. My cat loves lying on the lawn and rubbing her face on everything, in addition to eating any cockroaches (and believe me, we get some doozies here in Australia) and occasionally Huntsman spiders. This behaviour has strengthened my resolve not to use any chemicals in our yard or pesticides in the house. We get ants from time to time but every house does in warmer climates. A few years ago my pantry was infested with pantry moths – horrid little things laid their eggs in everything and I was chasing caterpillars for months around the kitchen, including the walls and ceiling at one stage – and I found a product that consisted of cardboard with attached sticky material which attracted the moths to which they became stuck and died. I was later told that Bay Leaves can also act an a deterrent …… now if I could just find something that actually keeps those damn moths from getting into our wardrobes and laying eggs which then hatch into cardigan-eating moths !!

    Beautiful photographs again xx

    11 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, chemicals have done a lot of harm overall even if they were intended to help production. We have used boiling water on weeds and on ants, but thankfully we don’t have many ants but we do have flying ants and they emerge from the cracks between the paving stones on the steps outside our back door. Indeed, there is a Flying Ant Survey, and you let this biological survey people know each year the day that the ants emerge and fly off, and they plot the emergence around the country, I think the further north you go, the later the fling ant day, but it’s usually around mid July. Indeed, some years it is exactly the same day as it was the year before, which is quite remarkable.
      I don’t like the sound of all your insects in Australia one little bit, especially spiders and those pantry moths sound awful! Those sticky pieces of cardboard sound a bit like the fly papers people used to hang up in this country years ago, but I think they were impregnated with something undoubtedly toxic and so they fell from usage if not totally banned.

      11 . May . 2017
  2. Jo

    I think people are more aware these days that butterflies are declining in numbers and many grow plants that are bee and butterfly friendly. Even garden centres now label their plants according to the wildlife they’re good for.

    11 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, people are more aware these days and I am sure a lot have plants which attract butterflies. We inherited a buddleia bush in our hedge at the front of the house, but even so we seldom see butterflies on it when years ago such a bush would be covered with butterflies. I am now reading the book Rainbow Dust (mentioned in my post) and it’s delightful.

      11 . May . 2017
  3. Marlene Stevens

    Butterflies are beautiful, we had a giant buddleia bush which took up so much space when we moved here, we cut it right back, this year it is growing well so hopefully will produce some wonderful flowers for the butterflies.
    I have just got a new cabinet for the kitchen and it has butterfly voile curtain in it.

    11 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Buddleias tend to grow quite large even in one season, don’t they? Chris cuts down the one in the laurel hedge (it is our neighbour’s hedge but he tends to cut our side, with our neighbour’s approval of course) and it sprouts up again the next year. I know people often dismiss buddleias as they have an almost-weed-like reputation as they tend to take up residence on waste ground and around derelict buildings but they are actually very attractive shrubs – one I saw in Brixham (and photographed) a few years ago was the most wonderful deep purple and looked magnificent.
      There you go – butterflies everywhere, even on a voile curtain. The moment I began researching butterflies for my forthcoming magazine article I began to see images of them everywhere, on greetings cards, on wallpaper, on coasters and trays, etc!

      11 . May . 2017
  4. Eloise at thisissixty.blog

    Isn’t nature amazing? Horrid little caterpillars morph into these beautiful, delicate creatures. I’ve certainly noticed far fewer butterflies than there were in my childhood. We planted a buddlia in the garden in the hope of attracting them but rarely see any. In Hawkshead in Cumbria we saw a very similar buddlia absolutely covered with beautiful bright blue butterflies and had hoped for the same.
    I did know that male sea horses give birth but had no idea that they were fish! Fascinating creatures. I love marine life.
    I think Lara may have a point about the use of chemicals and the decline of butterflies, and possibly many other declining species.

    11 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, I was surprised to learn that sea horses are fish, they look nothing like fish. They evolved (if I remember correctly from my conversation with the expert more than 20 years ago) from the pipe fish (and strangely, there are still pipe fish, so why they didn’t evolve into sea horses, too, I’ve no idea!)
      But yes, I’m sure we humans are now reaping what we sowed, i.e. the decline in the population of both bees and butterflies because of our over-use of chemicals.

      11 . May . 2017

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