Good show from fast-flying Small Copper butterfly this year

By Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

The Small Copper has lovely autumn colours on display in early summer.
The Small Copper has lovely autumn colours on display in early summer.

The fast-flying Small Copper put on a good show this year. Years ago, I used to see lots of them in our garden and local environs but they have become scarce at home in recent years so I go to my local nature reserve where they are common and I have the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with them.

As its name tells us, the Small Copper is a small butterfly. It has a maximum wingspan of 35mm. And it is copper-coloured. Its dominant colours are coppery yellows, oranges and browns, lovely autumn colours albeit recently on display in early summer.

When viewed from different angles, the yellows and oranges glow brightly with a coppery iridescence. The copper colours are decorated with grey-black spots and the edges of the wings are bordered with the same grey-black colour.

The butterfly's range extends northwards from North Africa and sweeps across the continents of Europe and Asia as far as Japan. It also occurs across North America. In Ireland, we have a distinct sub-species called 'hibernica' that is said to be brighter and more orange than any of the Small Coppers found elsewhere.

The Small Copper overwinters as a small greenish-brown caterpillar with black markings and a shape like that of a woodlouse. When the weather is bad it rests attached to its food plant by a silken pad. On fine days, it becomes active and feeds.

At the end of March, the caterpillar burrows into leaf litter to pupate before emerging as an adult butterfly in May. During May and June, the adults are in the wing. They mate and the females lay eggs on plants that the young eat such as Common Sorrel, Sheep's Sorrel and Broad-leaved Dock.

The adults die after breeding so there will be a lull from now to mid-July when the next generation of adults emerges. Severe weather takes a toll on overwintering caterpillars so the spring brood tends to be small. Individuals that survived to produce the winged reproducing stage have now bred and the adults that will emerge in mid-July from the summer brood should be much more numerous.

If late summer and early autumn turn out to be pleasantly mild the caterpillars arising from the summer brood, rather than settling down to overwinter, will pupate to produce a third or autumn generation. Doing so is a risky business as, at best, in our climate, a third brood results in only partial success.

Wexford People

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