Red lacewing – beauty in warning colours

Red Lacewing (Cethosia bilbis bilbis male)

I often find, when I take a set of photographs, that I am initially disappointed with the results. The reason being that one has such great expectations regarding the results, sometimes even imagining whilst you are taking the photographs, that they will be amazing! The subject, the light, the whole experience seems to produce a sense that this could be a great photo. But you forget that there is a process involved: the camera, the settings, the lens. Any one of a number of things – the wrong shutter speed, dust on the lens, camera shake, failure to focus properly – could conspire to ruin your wonderful dream of a perfect photo! Also, because expectations are high, there is an element of let-down, even if the photographs are not bad! So, it often pays to leave them for a while. Come back to the images after a few weeks, or even months, and you will see them in a whole new light. You might not be so emotionally attached as the experience has faded, and you can take a more balanced perspective. Discarding what didn’t work. Looking again at images you might at first have dismissed.

Red Lacewing (Cethosia bilbis bilbis male) mud puddling on the Gully Trail, Doi Chiang Dao, Thailand

This happened to me with this butterfly. It was an enchanting encounter. A beautiful butterfly flew in front of me and settled down to do some mud puddling on a small stream, beautifully lit by the sun shining through the trees. It was a Red lacewing, Cethosia bilbis – quite a common butterfly in South East Asia – but one that is so beautiful, particularly in profile, that I never fail to get excited when I see one. There are also a few other similar, but equally exquisite species, that are all a joy to come across. This time I thought, here is an opportunity to get some shots of it that do justice to its elegance and beauty. But when I came to look at the results, I was at first a bit disappointed; some were not quite in focus, others failed to capture it from the best angle, and so on. Expectations exceeding results again. When however, I came back to the images after a few months, I realized that there were some good photographs after all, and that whilst others were not perfect, they showed interesting features about the butterfly that I had not noticed before. Perhaps other people might share my fascination? This is the lot of the photographer, searching for perfection, but rarely reaching it. Some people manage it more than I do, but we each have our own individual view of the world and there is room for many different perspectives.

Red Lacewing (Cethosia bilbis bilbis male). Light shining through the wings as it absorbs nutrients via its proboscis

I have blogged about this butterfly twice before! Here and here. It’s a bit of an obsession! But these pictures are an improvement on the last ones, so at the risk of boring any readers and followers of my blog to death (or rather to switching off), I am posting them here as an homage to natural beauty.

Red Lacewing (Cethosia bilbis bilbis male). Sunlight highlighting the patterns on right side wings.

Why is it that we find warning colours like this – black with red – so attractive? Or am I alone? I think it is because they are so striking; but also because we have an innate awareness of the potential danger, an aversion to, warning colours. We instinctively know – or at least most animals do – that it is something potentially dangerous, and best avoided. But it has caught our attention and we are fascinated by this colourful creature, which does not seem to hide. In this case it is a walking poison; protected, it hopes by concentrations of cyanide it has carefully synthesised from precursors it obtained as a larva. A property it shares with some other, equally striking butterflies – Mullerian mimics* – which share to some extent its deadly taste. They club together, reinforcing the message, ‘don’t touch/taste/try to eat us’ or you will be sorry! It seems to work. Birds and lizards learn to avoid them, find something else, stick to what you know.

Red Lacewing (Cethosia bilbis bilbis male) showing highly serrated wing margins – as seen from behind

With a butterfly, I usually try to get a shot which fills the frame of the view finder – not always easy – as best I can. But sometimes, it is nice to see the butterfly from further away, in the context of its environment. In this case (below), it appears less brightly coloured, and fits in rather well with the colours of the rocks and leaves.

Red Lacewing (Cethosia bilbis bilbis male) on the Gully Trail, Doi Chiang Dao, Thailand

These photographs were taken on 1 February 2017, on the Gully trail, usefully shown on a map here, in Doi Chiang Dao, northern Thailand.

*Cethosia butterflies are considered to be in a ‘Danaus (male + female) – Cethosia (male + female) – Argyreus (female) Müllerian mimicry ring’ (reference no. 2).

References (further reading)

  1. Nahrstedt, A., & Davis, R. H. (1983). Occurrence, variation and biosynthesis of the cyanogenic glucosides linamarin and lotaustralin in species of the Heliconiini (Insecta: Lepidoptera). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: Comparative Biochemistry75(1), 65-73.
  2. Nishida, R. (2017). Chemical Ecology of Poisonous Butterflies: Model or Mimic? A Paradox of Sexual Dimorphisms in Müllerian Mimicry. In Diversity and Evolution of Butterfly Wing Patterns (pp. 205-219). Springer, Singapore.
  3. Su, S., Lim, M., & Kunte, K. (2015). Prey from the eyes of predators: Color discriminability of aposematic and mimetic butterflies from an avian visual perspective. Evolution69(11), 2985-2994.


  1. Stunning butterfly Ray and lovely images. I know exactly how you feel about quality of images especially if it’s a rare encounter or first time sighting. I take loads of shots, at different setting if possible, of the same subject, maybe 1 in 10 are quite good. When shooting close up the slightest of movement will lose focus or depth of field. As you say though photography is an individual thing, we all see things differently. Brian

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