Clay brought up the joys of watching butterflies emerge… so I thought that I would write of how I have happily ‘wasted’ time over the past fortnight with not a micro-pang of guilt. In this ‘work’ I have taken a large number of images and also had my sense of wonder repeatedly reinforced. Emerging butterflies have featured in these photographic activities and though I have witnessed the final stage of metamorphosis many times the delight never dulls. It’s how I am made…
Over the past few weeks the insect that I have long regarded as my favourite European butterfly species – the two-tailed pasha (Charaxes jasius) has been the main focus of attention here at ‘Nutter’s Hill Farm (Podere Montecucco). It is the only representative of the genus Charaxes to venture into Europe though the rest of its relatives are widespread in Africa. There is a risk in writing anything autobiographical in that, either overtly or subliminally you reveal more than might be considered sensible. Luckily, I never feel like that on this blog for I am aware that amongst a readership of naturalists and photographers lurk capable of greater lunacy than mine in the name of their passion for nature.
On several occasions over the past fortnight I have happily trundled out of bed at around about 4 AM to check on the state of some chrysalids that I have on plants near the house. These are bright green and easily concealed amongst the leaves of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) on which the curious, horned larvae feed. Fortunately, there is a warning so one does not have to sit watching and waiting since some 24 hours before emergence there is a colour in a couple of bands under the pupal skin – the unexpanded wings start to be visible. You can see this in the paired image above that shows a chrysalis about 12hours away and the moment of splitting. The visibility of wing colour is a sign to get everything ready for there is no room for mistakes when the butterfly starts to emerge.
I mentally planned to create at least two series of shots – one against the MYN white background, and the other against a soft, green blur of shrubby vegetation: in the end there were three. In each case I made test shots (and remade them…) after setting up so that I knew lighting and the balance with a background was spot on. In the past, I have had both success and failure with such series of images – the failures occurred when it was left too late to get another cup of coffee or answer a call of nature. It was almost as if the insect, in its malign perversity sensed the opportunity ‘carpe diem’ – but maybe that degree of apparent paranoia indicates that I might have spent too long at this… I knew that I was up too early but there was a thrill of anticipation – and then, suddenly, you are alerted by a slight movement at the head end of the chrysalis where it first splits. A few seconds later, emergence begins in earnest and the insect rapidly scrambles free so you need to be ready to change focus if you want to capture a series of different views.
At this stage, a normally powerful flyer like the Pasha is highly vulnerable to predators. It settles quickly on the outer casing of the chrysalis and begins a rhythmic swaying motion of its body to aid the pumping of fluids into the wing veins to effect expansion. If that is impeded in any way – a wing caught in the chrysalis skin, for example, it will not expand and the insect is crippled. Sooner than you anticipate, a stunningly beautiful adult insect just hangs there, graciously granting you the opportunity to move in closer, ever so cautiously, for images of the tapestry patterns the tiny wingscales make or of exploring the geometry of its wings and the twin tails that are the origin of the common name…
I recorded emergence in each of the three separate instances - one a day for three days; like an enlightened doctor’s prescription for nature therapy. The event took place at round about 8 am so that Lois glided in, unflustered, to witness the small miracle of nature with none of the pain of early waking. The metamorphosis is one of those things that children of all ages – up to and including octogenarians and beyond – find enthralling. For me, there is each time the sense of privilege at sharing this event…I am loath to employ the term ‘miracle’ but it is very special, especially the incredible processes that go on in a seemingly inert chrysalis between the time the caterpillar settles to spin its gossamer cocoon and the chrysalis splits to reveal an emerging adult insect. There is a wholesale reorganisation of the cells within the former caterpillar body, the eating machine stage, as they take up new places in the formation of the winged adult.
As happens so often when setting challenges in close-up photography, you have the image of what you might like to obtain and then you have to be realistic, working within your limits as a photographer and the capabilities of your equipment. Which doesn’t mean to say, of course, that you should not continually push both… Sometimes, I scare myself by realising out how long ago it was that I first encountered the Pasha– in fact, it is exactly 33 years ago this week and, in that time I’ve enjoyed watching and photographing them in Cyprus, Greece, southern France and here in Italy. According to some books it is not supposed to occur on the eastern side of Italy, but no-one has informed the territorial males that dive-bombed me on the far east tip of the Gargano peninsula and also in Salento.
Before I arrived in Cyprus the butterfly had not really registered in my mental ‘catalogue’, which was why I was puzzled the first time I encountered it or rather a hind wing. The scene was a hot, dusty road in the Troodos Mountains where the radiator in my trusty (the day not so trusty) Renault 16 burst. So I did what any self-respecting DIY mechanic would do and disconnected the radiator whilst my eager friends took off to a village café. It was whilst repairing a burst rubber hose that I was transfixed by the way the radiator had seemingly sampled the local insect population and that one wing in particular was intriguing. There were twin tails, rather battered with a design that I’d never seen before.
These butterflies are strong, fast flyers that reveal the colouration on the upper wings only briefly as they flick them to warn off putative predators and, like many large attractive butterflies they have a taste for offal, excrement and over-ripe fruit… In the history of butterfly collecting all sorts of subterfuge has been employed to attract butterflies to where they might be netted and then deprived of life (or killed, as we say, technically) to satisfy ‘science’ and /or some rabid collecting mania. I have heard tales of how a lepidopterist might go out early in the morning after gallantly consuming large quantities of beer the night before and then urinate (or worse) along the forest track. A few hours wait and the flutterby population of the neighbourhood is in ‘festa’. Butterflies might look like winged jewels but many of them have a taste (if you can call it that) for things that we ‘refined’ folk might not find aesthetically pleasing. The two-tailed pasha, is a case in point.
It was in France in 1995 on a family holiday that we used to watch adults coming down to settle on rocks beside the River Cèse and drink. With my son Rhod, I thought we would try to attract the butterflies by placing some rotten fruit along a forest ride where there was a clearing bordered by Arbutus trees. So, we sauntered along to a market at the end of the day and bought some highly suspect looking figs from a stallholder who thought some mountain village was missing its idiots and they had fortuitously turned up at his stall. When I ventured to explain why he realised he was right but, hell, he was happy and so were we! We duly baited the track with figs and returned the next morning to find they had been eaten. However, whatever it was that had eaten them had been affected in the traditional way that figs act on the digestive system. I shiver as I write that for I recall – one of those formative memories – being given the dregs of a bottle of syrup of figs as a child and, within an hour, being terrified of moving more than a yard from the toilet door: well-meaning child abuse on the part of my mother?
To return to Pashas – scattered (nay splattered) around was the evidence – in the form of what one might politely call WBP (wild boar poo) and on each small pile of faecal material there were several butterflies, probosces working frantically in a state of blissful delirium. Several reels of Fujichrome’s finest were duly expended but sadly the Nikon F4 with SB29 macroflash had a fault that was not discovered until we were back home in Wales…but that is another tale. Suffice it to say that I felt that on that dark film must reside some of the best shots I had never taken…Hallelujah, and praise be for the wonderful immediacy of digital. This year, it has been easier for these large colourful butterflies have been attracted by our grapevine and some inaccessible fruit determined to become sultanas…and I did get a few images I liked!
© Paul Harcourt Davies 2011
NB: no part of this may be produced in any form whatsoever without the written permission of the author