Caterpillar diversity

Some species of butterflies and moths have caterpillars that change heavily in colors and pattern. Sometimes certain color forms are strictly existing (e.g. the caterpillars of the Death’s head hawk-moth, Acherontia atropos, can be green, yellow or black and white). Some species have simply “unique” caterpillars. The Red admiral’s (Vanessa atalanta) caterpillars belong to the latter.

The other day I found a good spot with masses of caterpillars of the Red admiral. I took the chance to get a better look at the diversity.

Species check at the farm

Today, I wanted to take a different approach searching for caterpillars and butterflies. Instead of searching for a particular species I selected a small location. I then spent about an hour at that location, the Haltiala farm in Helsinki, trying to spot as many species as possible.

No rare species today, but it was a good day and it was great to see that the ordinary butterfly species do very well at the moment. What I found was young caterpillars of the Elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor), lots of caterpillars of the Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), caterpillars of the Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) in almost all instars, Large whites (Pieris brassicae) that most likely migrated to Finland recently and of course, European peacocks (Aglais io).

The Red Admiral

The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is a butterfly that can be sighted throughout Europe. Unlike other closely related species the Red Admiral can’t take the cold winter in the high North. Instead, the butterflies migrate every autumn heading to Southern Europe and North Africa.

Late spring or early summer, when the first Red Admirals appear, they’ve a long journey behind. Almost instantly on arrival they will breed and lay eggs that will form the second generation of butterflies flying. This generation will migrate back to a milder climate in autumn.

Summer 2014 has been a good year for the Red Admiral. I’ve seen them almost in masses. They did not only populate the butterfly bar in our backyard but it was also easy to track down caterpillars on nettles. Early June, while walking our twins, I even had the pleasure to witness a female laying eggs in front of my eyes. I couldn’t resist taking the egg and raise the butterfly.

Here’s my best photos of summer 2014, including all stages of the metamorphosis further down. This is a butterfly that definitely loves to pose for the camera.

Like the Small Tortoiseshell and the European Peacock, also the Red Admiral is an easy species to raise from caterpillar. Finding caterpillars may be a bit tricky since they often hide themselves in a “leaf pocket”. On the other side, just look out for a wrapped leaf of nettle and you might score relatively easy. Here’s some capture from season 2014.

Garden attraction


The butterfly bar I’ve set up in our garden a couple days ago has become a real attraction. I’ve been positively impressed by the variety of visiting species and by the number of individuals stepping by. Here’s a series of snaps about what’s happening just on our very own back-yard.

A huge drawback of setting up a feeding station are the wasps and bumblebees also being attracted. Unfortunately, on days when the butterfly bar is open our kids have to stay inside for safety purpose.

Multiple individuals of European Peacocks (Inachis io), Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) and Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) are continuously feeding outside. Yet missing is the Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis Xanthomelas) which used to be a frequent visitor during early spring when the bar was set up.

The highlight of raising butterflies

Raising butterflies provides a long lasting entertainment to both adults and kids. However, there is a particular highlight. The moment when a fresh butterfly has hatched, dried its wings and is ready to be released.

Sometimes you have plenty of time to take decent photos of the new adult butterflies. Sometimes, it will just take seconds and the butterfly flatters away. Nevertheless, it’s a rewarding moment. All the care-taking pays back with the feeling of having achieved something.

Here’s some photos of releasing European Peacocks (Inachis io) and Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta). The European Peacocks came with an additional challenge. They tend to hatch early in the morning (in my case the Red Admirals hatched around noon). With plain shadow in our garden, and a sleepy daughter it was pretty tricky to get some footage.

Meanwhile at the Butterfly Bar

After a long and hot period the time has come to set up the butterfly bar again. Lots of flowers in nature have ended blooming while others simply weathered due to the lack of rain. It’s time to invite some visitors for a “drink”.

Trying to figure out the best mixture for attracting butterflies I’m now testing two new recipes. Early spring, I already had pretty good results after setting up the butterfly bar. Back then, I used a mixture which I obtained from the Facebook group Butterflies and moths of Finland.

I’ve now placed two new mixtures into the garden, one based on red wine and another on beer. Please note at this stage I’m still experimenting.

The General’s Red

  • Cheap red wine
  • Dark syrup
  • Yeast
  • Salt

Mix the ingredients, take an even amount of wine and syrup. Add some salt. I used sea salt as I hope this would provide an additional lure to species generally soaking minerals. Add some yeast (the mixture will be fine also without yeast, but I try to add more flavor to the drink). Last, add something allowing butterflies to land on your drink. I cut a sponge into stripes which I placed in a small glass vessel with the mixture (see photos).

Foaming Freddy

  • Cheap lager beer
  • Dark syrup
  • Yeast
  • Salt

Mix the ingredients, take an even amount of beer and syrup. As with The General’s Red, add some salt to the mixture. Then, add yeast which plays an important role in this drink. The mixture needs to ferment before becoming really attractive to butterflies. Both the smell but also the alcohol will attract visitors. Add something allowing butterflies to land on. For this drink I used an old wipe which provides extra surface spreading the smell (see photos)

The General’s Red should attract Butterflies right away whereas Foaming Freddy needs some time, a couple days perhaps, to become really attractive. Place the jar with the mixture on a sunny spot in your garden..

I got Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) visiting both drinks on the next day after opening the bar (the wine-based mixture seems to work better so far). My goal is to get a Moarning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) visiting our garden. Depending on the habitat you’re living in you can even expect species such as the Purple Emperor (Apatura iris) or the Poplar Admiral (Limenitis populi) to come feed on your setup. Unfortunately, in my case there’s rather small chances for that to happen.

The bait has been placed. I’ll be back with a post on the top results soon.

Return of the migrating species

Some birds head towards south to spend the winter and return in spring. Birds, however, are not the only animals with such a behavior. Not all butterflies are capable of overwintering in a freezing environment. They must find a milder climate. The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) are probably the best known migrating butterfly species in Europe.

Only a couple days ago warm air streams brought the first migrating individuals to Finland. Well, by individuals I should probably also say it’s not just a couple. These butterflies come in masses. Despite of the bad luck I had photographing the butterflies that I sighted, I had a great moment today.

Walking the baby buggy of our twins I kept one eye on the surrounding. I spotted a Red Admiral. That individual was the 3rd I saw this spring. The moment I stopped walking I also realized it was a female, flying to lay eggs. I observed one stop she took. Then I had a closer look at the leaf of the nettle, and there it was. A fresh, tiny but vital egg was placed on top of a nettle leaf, the food plant of this species. I couldn’t resist to grab the leaf to get a close-up at home.

Time to start raising a Red Admiral. The very same species I also brought from caterpillars to adult butterflies last summer.

Hello world!

The interest in butterflies comes with a variety of benefits. Let me introduce one which probably wouldn’t come to your mind. This post features Noel, one of our twin boys, at the age of approximately 2 weeks. The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) hatched only moments before taking the image.

A couple days before our twins were born I took another walk to the horse stable nearby. I got slightly off track, following a butterfly which I tried to photograph. Reaching high nettles in the middle of a field, I wanted to have a closer look.

First, I spotted a rolled leaf. This is mostly a sign that an insect or spider has built a primitive shelter. In this case, it was a small caterpillar of the Red Admiral. Browsing further through the nettles, I came across many large caterpillars of the same species. Since they were close to entering the stage of pupa, I collected them. I knew butterflies will hatch only a couple weeks later, and wanted to share this miracle with our daughter.

Raising caterpillars needs dedication, though. After our boys were born I had to collect some stuff for my wife from home. On the same trip, I also had to pick fresh nettles for the caterpillars.

The bonus of all the care-taking are the photos one can shoot with “fresh” butterflies. Butterfly raising offers a special moment once an individual hatches. Before being capable of flying the insect first needs to dry its wings.

Take your time to have a close look during this time frame. The butterfly won’t fly away. It’s also the moment for taking a proper macro shot without the rush. Or stage a shot, as depicted in the photo series below.

Please keep the fragility of butterflies in mind. The slightest touch on its wings will result in permanent damage. Place your finger in front of the insect, and allow it to walk on it. Place your finger to the desired spot and allow the “accessory” to take position on its own.

Did you know…

The Red Admiral is a migrating species. If flies from north Africa and southern Europe to Finland in spring for breeding. In autumn, the adults of the next generation head south again as they have not yet learned overwintering in Scandinavia.

Source: Wikipedia (January 9, 2014)

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