Summer treasure 8: The comma butterfly

2/9/2018 I have been waiting since the spring for a sighting of this beautiful creature. In early summer I caught a glimpse of that orange-brown glow fluttering past at a distance, but too briefly and too far away for me to get a proper look – though I was fairly certain it was a comma. No other butterfly shares its rich colour. But finally, a few days ago, one came onto the terrace, and sunbathed on the window long enough for me to get a photo on my phone.

I think we all know that butterfly numbers have taken a nosedive in recent decades. When I was a child, our lavender bushes were almost invisible beneath the clouds of white butterflies enjoying the flowers. The buddlejas were always covered in tortoiseshells, peacocks, cabbage whites, brimstones, red admirals and the odd painted lady, comma or fritillary, if we were lucky. I am now sadly privileged to welcome only the occasional visitor to my garden. The small whites are the most numerous, but sometimes large whites, meadow browns, skippers, gatekeepers and common blues, amongst all the previously numerous buddleja frequenters, come too. Now, instead of the buddlejas, patches of head-high thistles around the garden – though proving somewhat problematic in their seemingly infinite spreading capacity – seem to provide the most attractive food source to my insect friends. I am torn between attempting to prevent them taking over entirely, and wanting to provide for as many creatures as possible in my little oasis.

One unexpected change, however, is that commas used to be a much rarer sight than they are now. I don’t know if this is an illusion: perhaps they have suffered slightly less than other butterfly species, and therefore make up a greater proportion of my butterfly sightings than they used to. But the thrill of seeing one never diminishes.

I still have a dream that it’s not too late for our agricultural practices to change sufficiently to help butterflies recover. Now we have proof that insect populations have plummeted by over 75% in the last three decades – the study took place in Germany, but I have no doubt this figure is representative of northern Europe as a whole – perhaps the reality will finally hit us hard enough to make us take action, as concern about plastic has. There is little sign of it yet, but we have to hold onto small hopes.