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The painted lady butterfly phenomenon

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Martin Hughes-Games Martin Hughes-Games | 17:57 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

If you've been keeping a finger on the Springwatch pulse, we hope that you've been lucky enough to have experienced a glimpse of the beautiful phenomenon that's literally sweeping the nation.

The painted lady is one of the most widespread migrant butterflies found worldwide except in South America. It has a wide range of habitats and food sources including thistles and nettles.

Every year, this species takes on a mammoth migration north, up from the desert fringes of North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia, to mainland Europe and on to Britain and Ireland.

This year we've been experiencing spectacular arrivals of painted ladies in the UK in huge numbers and Butterfly Conservation think they know why...

In January this year heavy winter rains left the Atlas mountains of Morocco covered with lush green caterpillar food, resulting in a huge hatch and hundreds upon thousands of these gorgeous orange-brown butterflies joining the migration out of Africa.

Around March and April these flocks alighted in the Mediterranean and started breeding. With another generation of caterpillars happily fattening on the foliage in France, Spain and Portugal, only a few of the first generation overshot to arrive here in the UK in April.

The second generation hatched out and headed north and our lucky southerners first experienced them pouring in tens of thousands - and these guys aren't just here for or summer weather, they're breeding again!

The painted lady has a one month metamorphosis period, that's from being an egg to a caterpillar to a butterfly. So in a month's time we could be expecting unbelievable figures across Britain! You literally ain't seen nothing yet!

There's been all kinds of figures reported in the news with 3,000 painted ladies seen in 45min and 18,000 spotted off the Norfolk coast. These extraordinary numbers are the result of exceptional weather conditions in Africa and a migration of this magnitude hasn't been seen since the 1960s.

But that's not the last of it...What's next?
Their closest cousin, the red admiral butterfly, migrates south after its initial northward travels but there has been no record of painted ladies doing the same. Usually they wouldn't survive a British winter (although climate change may affect this in the future) so will they head south for another mass migration? We don't know yet but round about the time of Autumnwatch we could be in for an absolute treat!

Some of your painted lady pictures from the Springwatch Flickr Group


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