A tale of Thyme, ant and the sheep = The Large Blue Butterfly!

The Large Maculinea arion

Natural Ramblings isnt all about my photography, Its also about fascinating facts about wildlife, I never want to bore you with constant scientiific facts, you will just switch off. But what I would love to do is is renew your enthisiasm in our wildlife and show you some clever things they do to just survive in the world today.

Recently all Ive been rambling about is butterflies so on that note I had to share with you this amazing tale of Thyme, ant and the sheep.

Its a cuckoo in the nest of a cuckoo nest!

You’ll understand when youve read thos post, I hope 🙂

There have been many stories of different species co-existing togther just to survive, but nothing so astonishing as the story of the Large Blue Butterfly almost extinct thanks to the eighteenth century Victorian passion of collecting butterflies which nearly drove them nearly into extinction.  Conservationists tried to protect them by fencing areas of heathland and preventing the grazing of sheep, but still numbers declined and by 1979 they had almost disappeared from Britain.

The stunning Large Blue is the largest and rarest of our blue butterflies; but also one of the cleverest and Im excited to share with you all just HOW CLEVER!!!

These stunning butterflies start life as an egg being laid on Wild Thyme, where the adult also feeds on. When the egg hatches the tiny caterpillars eat the buds and the developing seeds. At this point the largest or fattest and strongest caterpillar may eat the other caterpillars too.

The last caterpillar left then falls to the ground where its then mimics the scent of the red ant lavae in the form of a pheromone. The red ant comes along where the sweet sickly scent drives the ant wild, making it lick and clambering all over it sipping the secretions from the caterpillars glands at the end of its body. The caterpillar takes this behavior for several hours until it finally curves its body into the rigid shape of an ant larvae.

Large Blue caterpillar tended by frenzied ants

The ant thinking its now one of its own larvae drags it back to the ant nest and lays it with the other larvae deep within the nest. The hungry beastie then continues to feed on the other ant larvae. The ants will attack any invaders but this clever caterpillar keeps producing this pheromone that is similar to the ants and remains undetected.

During this time its skin becomes tough and cannot be attacked and the greedy caterpillar continues muching on the ant larvae for nearly a year. This amazing story doesnt stop here, the caterpillar even emits a sound like the queen ant, making the other worker ants fussing frenzidly round it licking and tending to it like royalty where after it has grown to almost 100 times its original size it turns into a chrysalis. (For those interested see this fascinating post about the sounds emitted from The cente of ecology and hydrology)

Then in late Spring it emerges and literally flies the nest.

The theory to the near extinction of this stunning but genius butterly is that there were many factors involved in this near extinction, the fact is its seems to be just one species of ant that the caterpillar can mimic the Red Ant Mermica sabuleti, its not every species of ant. Thes particular red ant are so sensitive to temperature and humidity and can ONLY survive themselves when the grass has been cut short by sheep or rabbits and then exposed to hot sun. So back in Victorian times the conservatioists were trying to help by fencing the sheep in stopping them naturally grazing on the grass; BUT they had actually prevented this vital link in the Large Blue’s life cycle.

Ichneumon Wasp Family

image from Insectoidinfo

BUT as they say in the movies…thats not all…there is yet another bad guy….dada…the Ichneumon wasp family.

This is a parasitic wasp not like our common yellow stripy ones we see regulalry, these guys seem to know which ants nest contain the caterpillar…maybe by the pheromone or the unual feenzied activity of the ants themselves, but they then go into the ants nest searching for the caterpillar. The ants attack the wasp but it sprays them with another pheromone which makes them turn on each other, so while all hell breaks lose, the wasp continues to look for the caterpillar.

When it finds its prize the female wasp injects it with her ovipositor laying her own egg. The unfortunate caterpillar continues to grow and turn into a chrysalis but when the pupa splits its NOT the stunning Large blue but a large black Ichneumon Wasp.

These stories really blow me away about how nature fights to survive and co-exist with each other, but sadly one species will gradually be unable to fend for itself and gradually start to die off.

Luckily several conservation societies are fighting to maintain the Large Blue’s environement and we are very slowly and gradually seeing a return in these amazing butterflies in the south western England, it makes me wonder what they will do next to survive!

 

Links and sites with more info on these beautiful butterlfies.

The National Trust have their own blog which is following the Large Blue conservation project in Collard Hill in Somerset called…yes…you guessed it…what else would you call it… The Large Blue Blog

Sadly Large Blue butterfly season has offically been declared over in Collard Hill so dont go rushing over there today.

 

For those of you that want to know more take a look at the Butterfly Conservation society here

Conservation status

  • Listed as a Section 41 species of principal importance under the NERC Act in England
  • UK BAP: Priority Species
  • Butterfly Conservation priority: High
  • European status: Endangered
  • Fully protected In Great Britain
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