Michael McCarthy: Butterflies to make the heart beat faster

Environment Notebook: I'd have given anything to see them. I'd have been elated. I could taste the elation in advance
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The Independent Online

Just what is the elation produced by butterflies in some people? Having spent five months writing incessantly about the things, in pursuit of The Independent's quest to see all 58 British butterfly species in a single summer, I did not think I would return to the subject now, with the clocks having gone back and the dark nights lying in wait for you when you leave work. But I got a phone call last week from one of Britain's keenest butterfly enthusiasts, Neil Hulme, chairman of the Sussex branch of the charity Butterfly Conservation, who told me the Queen of Spain fritillary had bred in Britain this year.

How many ways can you say: "So what"? Not a few people would be irritatedly thinking that, reading the sentence before last. But I was gripped by the news that a big, nay, a splendid orange and black butterfly, rarely seen in this country, had crossed the Channel this summer, laid eggs near Chichester and produced half a dozen or more offspring which were fluttering around the Sussex countryside in September.

I'd have given anything to see them. I'd have been elated. I could taste the elation in advance. But why, exactly?

Alfred Russell Wallace, the Victorian biologist who beat Charles Darwin to the theory of natural selection but never got the credit, once wrote a remarkable paragraph about this emotion. It was after he had captured, in Indonesia in 1859, one of the world's biggest butterflies, a spectacular creature which came to be called Wallace's golden birdwing.

He wrote: "The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause."

Well it will, to most people. But I know what he meant. I know the emotion. It might not be quite like that with the Queen of Spain fritillary, but it's of the same order of things. But why, exactly? Where does it come from? Anyone got any ideas?

It's an emotional subject

Other brilliant butterflies which occasionally get here from abroad include the Camberwell Beauty, the Large Tortoiseshell and the Monarch (the last from the USA). I haven't seen any of them, sad geezer that I am. If you've got them all in your garden, don't tell me. I couldn't handle the emotion.