Spring on the Wing

I am not in any way, shape, or form a keen student of entomology or, more precisely, lepidoptery, but I do sometimes wonder about the etymology of butterfly names. A browse through any identification guide will reveal a host of names that range from the boringly descriptive (Large White, Small White, Green-Veined White, Clouded Yellow) to the strongly militant or royal (White Admiral, Red Admiral, Purple Emperor, Duke of Burgundy) to the sublimely ridiculous (White-Letter Hairstreak, Cryptic Wood White, Grizzled Skipper).

I was reminded of this over the weekend when I snapped a few butterflies enjoying the warmer spring weather. Trying to identify them later turned into a highly entertaining, and at times puzzling, journey into the world of unusual naming conventions.

For example, common butterflies like the Tortoiseshell and Peacock are named for their appearance, but with a creative flair that is missing from the Orange-tip or Large Blue. At the other end of the spectrum, Gatekeeper and Grayling are quite poetic as far as names go, but don’t say much about the insect itself. And what caused someone to decide to call a butterfly Wall?

Then there are the fritillaries, whose names range from descriptive to locative: Pearl-bordered, Silver Washed, Dark Green, High Brown, Marsh, Glanville, Heath. And those Hairstreaks; in addition to the White-Letter, they come in brown, purple, green, and black. There’s also the Lulworth Skipper, which sounds like it should be a boat, and the Mountain Ringlet, which makes me think of warm winter clothing.

I am pleased to report that the two I spotted in the garden also have great names. This one is a female Brimstone; the sexes differ in that the upper side of the male’s wings are bright yellow, and the female is more greenish-white. When feeding, this species keeps its wings over its back and the veining on the underside of the wings is great camouflage among leaves. Even those brown spots, which are part of the butterfly’s normal colouration, help it blend in to the background.


The other one is the grammatically named Comma, named for a tiny comma mark on the underside of its wing. I didn’t catch sight of this identifying mark, but the ragged wings are perhaps a better feature to look for when it comes to identification. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but one thing is for sure: these insects have names as colourful and unusual as they are.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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