Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The loveliest living creature
Friday 19 August 2011
What's Britain's most beautiful creature? Many people would name a bird: the kingfisher springs to mind at once, and there'd be a raft of other candidates from the goldfinch to the roseate tern, all plausible. Some might name a mammal: I can see how the pine marten might have its supporters, all sleek deadly elegance in fur; and the common dolphin, with that great pale stripe along its side, is a heartstopping animal when you see it surging around your boat. But I'm going to name an insect.
You may well not have heard of it, because we tend to shy away from insects. Considering they're the world's most successful creatures, with more than a million named species, we don't have a lot of time for them; we instinctively class the great majority, from flies and bugs to earwigs and aphids, as pests, for stinging us or giving us disease, for eating our food or burrowing into the substance of our houses.
Just a few are allowed by our culture to be admirable, with butterflies, of course, at the top of the list. There aren't many others: moths, to a certain extent; honeybees and bumblebees; some beetles; and mayflies, the upwinged flies of the rivers, appreciated by trout fishermen.
And that's about it, apart from one group which seem to be hover on the cusp between rejection and approval: the odonata, the order of dragonflies and damselflies. In the past people hated dragonflies, which is why they were given their fierce name; it was thought they would bite you (they won't). They're still not popular, but they're growing in acceptance; birdwatchers like them. And it's in this group that you can find my candidate.
I first saw it about 20 years ago on a remote stretch of river in France and was taken aback by its beauty. It is a large damselfly, with a metallic, shining royal blue body and diaphanous, translucent wings which are marked by broad bands of navy. Not a common colour in nature, navy blue, the blue of summer blazers: for some reason in my memory the wing bands are purple, but then when I see it again I realise the colour is even more striking. It is a species which has a short fluttering flight like a butterfly, and can gather in numbers, and when I first saw it, on a July morning on that French river, it was present in fluttering swarms.
It is the banded demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens. It is such a living jewel that it looks like an insect made by Fabergé, and in fact in North America its family, the Calopterygidae, the demoiselles, have a perhaps even more appropriate name: the jewelwings.
It's not just present in France. It occurs across Europe and all over southern Britain, although it's a creature of flowing water, so you have to be on the riverside to see it. I've encountered it often now on English streams and I always get a terrific belt out of seeing it; one memorable afternoon, on the south branch of the River Wey in Surrey, I found crowds of the males interspersed with the females, which are brilliant emerald green.
Strange it's so generally unknown: everyone knows what a red admiral is, and a swallowtail, but scarcely anyone trots out the name of the banded demoiselle. Yet it's been appreciated by some for centuries. You can find it vividly illustrated in the margin of a medieval prayerbook, the Belleville Breviary, produced by the miniature painter Jean Pucelle in Paris in about 1323, in what is thought to be the oldest-known European pictorial representation of a member of the odonata (and I thank Claire Install of the British Dragonfly Society for tracking down for me the learned paper in which this is discussed).
Its season is more or less over now (it's June to August). But if you think Nature has no great surprises left for you, go looking for Calopteryx splendens on the riverside next summer. If there's a more beautiful living creature in Britain, I'd like to know of it.
Our love of the winged things
Most of the beauty in insects, of course, is found in their wings, those canvases which were so convenient for evolution to paint patterns upon.
A friend of mine, knowing of my butterfly enthusiasm, pointed out that while having a red admiral perch on your arm is a pleasure, if it didn't have its wings, if would be a sinister black creepy-crawlie and you'd be yelling and shaking it off.
I had to admit that was true. But it does have wings. People can develop "the love of winged things" (the phrase is from Victor Hugo) and there is a very strange but captivating anthology illustrating this by Miriam Rothschild entitled Butterfly Cooing Like A Dove.
On a final extreme note: if we dislike insects, we dislike spiders even more (let's remember that spiders are arachnids; arachnids and insects are both arthropods). We seem to have a hatred of spiders hardwired into our genes. But even spiders can be beautiful, as evidenced by one of Britain's rarest, the ladybird spider, a brilliant combination of scarlet and black, which has been given a new home on an RSPB reserve in Dorset.
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