Sandy’s Garden ... The Peacock

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

At the beginning of this month while I was washing dishes in the kitchen.

My eye was caught by a butterfly apparently warming itself on the outside windowsill, perched with its wings fully spread out as if it were sunbathing. And this was a butterfly which was not going to be easily overlooked, its wingspan something like 60mm … fully 2 inches in old money … with rust-red bands across its wings separating four very obvious what I might term ‘eyes’. I have never much cared about butterflies and know little about what species we might see in central Scotland, let alone have any knowledge of their lifestyles or habitats. But, having no memory of ever having seen this particular type of butterfly before, I was curious to find out about it.

I learn that it was a butterfly properly identified as Inachis io and commonly referred to as ‘the Peacock,’ although this should properly be ‘the European Peacock’. Described as ‘an unmistakable butterfly’ … I’ll go along with that … I now know that it is a regular garden visitor in central Scotland nowadays, its range having rapidly expanded northwards in recent years. The name Inachis io comes from Greek mythology, Io being the daughter of Inachus, a river god and king of Argos. But I don’t why it is named after a lady from Greek mythology.

The species is found throughout much of Europe and in temperate regions of Asia as far east as Japan, although it is not found in northern Scandinavia or in the southern parts of the Iberian peninsula. I have learned that many lepidopterists think the Peacock is the most beautiful butterfly in the world, and that Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to King Charles 1, wrote that the ‘eyes’ on its wings “shine curiously like stars, and do cast about them sparks of the colours of the Rainbow”.

Despite my having no recollection of ever having seen one before, I now understand that the Peacock is common in many parts of the United Kingdom, albeit it has only become resident in Scotland in recent years. Usually first seen in late summer, it is to be found in woodland, sharing hillsides with wild flowers and in gardens until September. Then it goes into hibernation, seeking out a sheltered, dark place in which to overwinter, its choice ranging from a rabbit burrow to a farm building. The Peacock certainly believes in hiding away from the weather, for it will seldom emerge from hibernation before the end of March. They are, of course, very hungry by then and they will visit almost any spring-flowering plant that offers the chance to find some nectar, such as bluebells, ground ivy, daisies and dandelions. The arrival of the first warm day excites the male Peacock, which will chase almost any flying insect in the hope of finding a mate. Once pregnant, the females seek out clumps of stinging nettles in which to lay their dull green eggs under the upper leaves.

As soon as they hatch, the larvae spin a silk web to form their homes, leaving this to feed on warm days. The groups of velvety black caterpillars spread to neighbouring nettle plants as they grow, feeding openly on the leaves and become less populous as predator flies kill some 90% of them. The survivors pupate, emerging from the chrysalis in late July and throughout August, and generally spend a few days very close to the emergence site, feeding on nectar from plants such as thistles, ragwort, marjoram and brambles.

Suddenly the penny dropped! All of these plants … and nettles … grow near us. That Peacock really was sunning itself, having recently emerged from the chrysalis; so its parents and others lived nearby last year at least, unseen by unseeing me. I should take up refereeing.