Harpenden's (and other) Butterflies in Verse

Talk by Richard Harrington to the Society on 22 January 2019

Richard (Rikki) Harrington has spoken twice previously at our meetings, once to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rothamsted Insect Survey, with which he spent his whole career, the other on the history of Scouting in Harpenden. His latest offering was very different, but had links to the former, as Rothamsted has a long history of work on butterfly migration.

It was a Brooke Bond tea card that began Rikki’s butterfly life at the age of 8. This led to an interest in biology at school, a degree in Zoology and Applied Entomology at Imperial College, a PhD based at the Natural History Museum and his career at Rothamsted working on aphids. Rikki has been penning verse since childhood and, in retirement, has celebrated each of our 58 British butterfly species with a poem. It is these that he had come to recite.

Study of butterfly migration

Rothamsted’s work on butterfly migration began with Carrington Bonsar “CB” Williams (1889 – 1981), who was Head of the Entomology Department from 1932 to 1955. His interest was sparked during a posting in Trinidad, where he saw clouds of sulphur butterflies migrating south-east for several days. He realised the importance of migration in pest control and conservation issues and set about understanding it through observation, experimentation and statistical analysis.

Photo:Painted Lady - (Vanessa Cardui)

Painted Lady - (Vanessa Cardui)

Richard Harrington

Interest has continued at Rothamsted in this topic and now radars are part of the experimental armoury.

Recent work has shown that Painted Lady butterflies, which are seen migrating into this country from Africa, also have a hitherto unknown return migration, but too high to be observed by eye.



Rikki’s poem, reproduced here with permission of Brambleby Books, explains all.

The Lady is for turning
One of nature’s true sensations,
Awe-inspiring, humbling, grand:
Painted Lady mass migrations
Casting shadows on the land.
How high up, how fast, how many?
How far, whither, when and why?
Parabolic dish antennae
Tracking every passer-by:

Helping to resolve the mystery,
With a range of fancy kit,
Knowledge of their natural history,
Clever stats and fervent wit.

Africa’s their winter quarters
Maybe down to the Sahel,
But, in spring, their sons and daughters
Recognise that all’s not well.

Soon the urge to leave takes over:
Land is dry and rations low.
Dreaming of the cliffs of Dover,
Compass set and off they go.

Buoyed by wind and muscle power,
Speeding northwards mile on mile,
Seeking out the Thistle flower:
Sanctuary in this sceptred Isle.

But there is no hibernation
Stage to ride our winter’s flack,
Thus a later generation
Makes the lengthy journey back,

Aided by the air’s convection,
Rising to the perfect height,
Where the wind speed and direction
Optimise the southbound flight.

Though nomadic life has dangers,
It’s evolved to help them thrive:
More of these most welcome strangers
Leave our shores than first arrive.

Read about the Lady’s capers,
Understand the rationale
Published in high impact papers:
Chapman, Reynolds, Lim et al.!

Photo:Marbled White -  (Melanargia Galanthea)

Marbled White - (Melanargia Galanthea)

Richard Harrington

After reading this poem, the audience was invited to request poems on butterflies of their choice. These included the Marbled White, which has considerably expanded its range in the Harpenden area in the last 20 years, having first been noticed on the bank of the hill leading down to Redbourn.

The poems were published in 2018 in a beautifully presented hardback book “The Butterfly Collection” (by Richard Harrington) in which Rikki also shows his skills as a photographer. The book costs £20 and can be obtained direct from the publishers, via Amazon, from Harpenden Books and other Waterstones shops or at National Trust, Ashridge, among other outlets.

Photo:Cover of "The Butterfly Collection" by Richard Harrington

Cover of "The Butterfly Collection" by Richard Harrington

scan by R Ross

In conclusion our chairman Gavin Ross drew attention to another interesting Rothamsted connection with insect migration. Mike Westmacott (1925 – 2012) of the Statistics Department was a member of the first successful expedition to climb Everest in 1953. Whilst there, he observed and, indeed, captured butterflies at immense altitude, which greatly surprised him and resulted in the publication of a paper on the subject.

To complete the circle, Rikki explained that he used to be leader of the 9th Harpenden Everest Cub Pack, and invited Mike to give a talk to the Cubs on more than one occasion.

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 07/05/2019.

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