Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The loveliest living creature


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.

Misplaced arachnophobia

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.;

Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
Life and Style
fashionOne man takes the hipster trend to the next level
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'