I grew up in Berkshire, and the butterflies of my childhood were the red admirals and commas that I’d gaze at on Michaelmas daisies way above my head. Orange tips danced in spring meadows of cow parsley and hedge garlic, small tortoiseshells overwintered on dusty shed beams, and white admirals fed on bramble flowers by a local ford. Commas followed me north when I moved to Northumberland, a species extending its range, but not the brimstones that were a zing of lime yellow in the rambling garden. I haven’t seen those for many years.
So it was with a bolt of recognition that I spotted a large yellow butterfly as I was putting away my gardening tools in the late afternoon heat. I chased it excitedly with my phone for 10 minutes, as it jerked and kinked over the vegetables, pausing for a second on some woody cranesbill, where I got a distant shot as an initial record. With a strong, determined flight, it favoured the red campion in my wildflower meadow and, with careful stalking, I managed a closer photograph. The acid yellow of its sculpted wings looked dazzling next to the vivid pink flower. A male brimstone butterfly, here in Allendale!
It was still around a day later, again on the campion. Gonepteryx rhamni’s ridged veins resemble those of a leaf; together with its angular wing shape, this protects it when roosting in foliage. Some believe that it is the male’s yellow colouring that inspired the word “butterfly” – the females are pale green.
The longest-lived of our British butterflies, adult brimstones can be a year old, often overwintering among ivy or holly leaves. Though they mainly feed on thistles, their spring nectar sources are plants that are now in flower in my garden: bugle, cowslip and red campion. Their caterpillar food plants, though, are the leaves of buckthorn and alder buckthorn, neither of which are known to grow in this area and why there are so few recorded here.
On average there are just two brimstones a year in this county. As I garden, I turn to look at every passing flickering of wings, but with neither a mate nor a larval food plant, it will probably remain a solitary record.