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Light, dainty and so very pretty

Initiate your child into the fascinating world of butterflies
The swallowtail butterfly completes its life cycle in Malta, feeding and laying eggs on the Fennel plant. Photo: Victor Falzon

If you’ve got an eye for nature, you will have noticed an unusual butterfly bonanza this autumn. This is all down to the record-breaking warm temperatures that we’ve been having since September.

Like all nature, triggers deep down inside a butterfly respond to the warm weather telling it the timing is just right to obey that eternal instinct: procreation. Balmy weather with dewy nights create a butterfly’s goldilocks weather: not too dry to keep wild plants from growing, not too cold to keep them from flowering.

We’ve had just enough rain and dew to convince our garden and countryside plants to produce a profusion of leaves. Combine this with the blooming of our gardens and occasional wild plants, and you have the perfect conditions to keep all the butterfly’s life cycle going: nectar-oozing flowers for the adults while they mate and lay eggs, and leafy munchies for the caterpillars.

Amazingly, many of the butterflies we’ve been enjoying have flown in from mainland Europe. Butterfly migration is not the typical “there and back again” journey a bird would undertake. Their lifespan is much shorter, so a cross-continental journey needs splitting up into several butterfly life cycles, with each adult completing a leg of the journey before laying eggs and leaving the job to the next generation. Each generation follows an innate inventory of plants and flowering times, urging it onwards along an instinctual mapping route of its part of the world.

This year is looking like the perfect time to initiate your child into the fascinating world of butterflies. Start simple: notice the variety. Don’t typecast white butterflies into “common”.

We get three types of whites: the large white, with its black trailing wing edges, the small white, with its smaller wings and slight black tips, and the bath white, with its black-speckled underwings.

Challenge yourselves to pick out the difference between our two yellow butterflies: the mustard yellow of the clouded yellow butterfly, and the highlighter yellow of the graceful Cleopatra butterfly.

Follow the habitat clues to understand butterflies and challenge your child to match the butterfly with its habitat. Red admirals will seek out shady places because their caterpillars’ food plant is the shade-loving nettle. Our largest resident butterfly – the swallowtail – will haunt sunny, fallow fields and distrubed habitats where the fennel plant grows in abundance.

The red admiral was previoulsly known as “red admirable” in an obvious reference to its good looks. Photo: Victor Falzon

Make a project out of each butterfly you see with your child. Get your first clue from its Maltese name after identifying the animal. You can use any number of apps for this, such as Google Lens. Butterfly names in Maltese often spell out the food plant of the caterpillar. Il-farfett tal-busbies, il-farfett tal-ħurrieq, il-farfett tax-xewk … Learning these names will not only link you to our islands’ natural heritage, but double your child’s discovery delight.

A throng of these fluttering beauties will most likely be feeding on flowering bushes, but lone butterflies seemingly lost from the pack could be females looking for a suitable place to lay their eggs.

7. After spotting an egg-laying butterfly, very gently check leaf underside for eggs. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Look out for the telltale landing on over a leaf and (once the lady has done the job) gently look for the tiny eggs. Enjoy the squeal-worthy joy of finding the tiny clusters and make sure to pat your child on the back for being an eminent budding scientist – it is no mean feat to find miniscule, camouflaged, well-hidden butterfly secrets.

Jot down your discoveries under the right section of your butterfly profiles. Add a fun feature: drawing crazy eyes. Butterfly wings often sport “eyespots” on their hindwings. The theory goes that these eyespots startle would-be predators into believing they are staring into the face of an intimidating predator!

Some butterfly patterns combine these eyespots with a “tail”. When the butterfly wings are in vertical position, the eyes and tail give the impression of a head with eyes and feelers, drawing attention away from the animal’s actual head. The spectacular swallowtail and the pretty, fluttering short-tail and long-tail blue butterflies both use this trick.

But all’s not rosy for our painted friends: declines in butterfly populations are occuring worldwide, no less in Malta due to constant construction, loss of butterfly habitat, use of pesticides and ever-increasing traffic.

But take heart – you and your child have an important role to play. Your butterfly project’s pièce de résistance must surely be to provide for the colourfully elegant creatures.

Whether you have a garden or a terrace, stock it up with plants that provide nectar (not all do – do your research!) for the adults. Take this a step further and grow your research its practical arms by planting and growing the very food plant that will guarantee you many life cycles of the flitting garden guests.

Spot the differences between the white butterflies: this Bath White sports grey-speckled underwings. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

All the articles in this series are available here. For more environment-related articles, follow this link.

For more Child stories, watch this space.

Join BirdLife Malta

For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.

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