The African adventures of a summer visitor

The painted lady caterpillar
The painted lady caterpillar

It may be just a wee hairy caterpillar to you, but to me there is something magical here, writes George Hogg (Hogg Estate Services).

Only by a combination of international conservation, citizen science, and modern technology have we recently been able to work out the life cycle of this insect.

It was known the Painted Lady was only a summer migrant to Britain, often seen to arrive on our south coast when warm winds blew up from Mediterranean regions.

However, we thought those born and bred here, died off each autumn.

Now we know the heartland of the species lies in arid areas of North Africa.

There they have continual warmth to breed and build up there numbers before setting off on a northbound wind for Spain.

Settling and breeding around the Med, they produce a new generation.

Another northbound wind and this new generation sets off for France, in turn to settle and breed.

By now summer is arriving in the UK and the French generation of Painted Ladies seem to know it.

Before long, yet another generation is crossing the channel and flooding into the southern counties.

Some years barely any reach Scotland, yet in others they can be our most common butterfly in suitable habitats.

You may find their spiky caterpillars hiding in silk tents among the fearsome spines of thistles.

In the past we all thought these larvae, were doomed to perish at summer's end.

Then radar got more sophisticated and clouds of Painted Ladies were detected at 400 feet, hitch-hiking south on the fast winds of high altitude.

Around the same time public butterfly counters on our south coast were telling Butterfly Conservation they were seeing individuals setting off out to sea.

Then the penny dropped; they go back to Africa!