Picture puzzle that has taken 40 years to take

Mystery photo.
Mystery photo.

Can you solve this puzzle picture before I give the explanation?

It is a muddle of brown and green. A closer look shows some sort of butterfly on the ground with a leaf or two nearby.

What is going on? What is the insect doing there? It is the most vital part of its life. In a day it will be dead. The leaf will carry on with the plan, but much to its own cost.

I have been trying to catch this moment for forty years and even now with a clue, the moment when I took the picture was on a warm sunny day in late August in the woods around my home at West Dean. This is a coppice wood with a good ground flora of chalk-loving flowers.

There was a large beech tree standing within a few feet of where the butterfly was at work, reflecting the sun from its trunk therefore making a hot-spot.

As you can see from the outline of its wing, the butterfly is old, but has had a busy life flying continually around the wood in culmination of this moment.

You can see too that it is a female, with the round black blobs on the wing which look like a draughts board. The male has squiggles across the broadest part of the forwing.

For any entomological reader the pictures aid it all in a second so how did you fare?

The answer of course is that this is a silver-washed fritillary, one of our biggest insects, and also one of the commonest woodland species in Sussex among other high forest species such as white admiral and purple emperor.

This year has been especially good for them. There were sixteen in my garden at one moment, all feeding on nectar from buddleia before flying off together in pairs to mate.

This nuptial flight is impressive, with the male circling the female as she flies straight and level and often very low.

When at rest with wings closed over its head the beautiful silver wash upon pale leaf green can be clearly seen.

Now, the significance of the leaves in my photograph. Obviously these are violet leaves. She is laying her eggs on them near the base of the beech tree, which is typical. Some only lay their eggs on the trunk of the tree where the egg hatches in 15 days.

Some eggs are laid on lumps of wood next to the violet leaves, which are to be the food for the caterpillar.

If ever you see the egg it is like a cream cone, about one millimetre tall or slightly less.

The final stage of the growing caterpillar is a black, spiky-backed object with a few longitudinal yellow lines running down its back from neck to tail.

But the emerging adult butterfly next July spells high summer in the woodlands, a moment much to be anticipated.