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Drunken Admirals!

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectaring on windfall apple. Galicia, Spain

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

(Poem 51: ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’ quoted from The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth Poetry Library) from a blog called Emily Dickinson: Intoxicated by Life.

The red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectaring on windfall apple. Galicia, Spain

I have blogged before about Red Admirals feeding on fallen apples, but I cannot resist revisiting the subject, not only to share some more photographs, but also to touch on the subject of inebriation in butterflies! There are many species which feed on fallen fruits and have no doubt become intoxicated, but I came across a case of an entomologist deliberately giving a butterfly alcohol, and observing the behaviour of the drunken lepidopteran! The account, reported in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, is worth quoting in full! See below.

A female of Ophsiphanes cassiae L. [cassina], known in Costa Rica as “mariposa pacayera” or palm butterfly, drifted at dusk from the forest into a room where it flew and perched in places where light was subdued, until it arrived at a table where a bottle of a sound red wine (Rubion, Paul Masson, California, alcohol 12% vol.) had been recently uncorked and left to breathe. The insect circled the bottle a few times before landing on the table surface and assuming a normal resting position. I then placed a drop of wine some 10 cm away from the butterfly which shyly retreated from my hand, remained motionless for a moment and then approached the drop, extended its proboscis and drank at its leisure. After some five minutes there were obvious changes in the behaviour of the insect. First, some very slow up and down flapping of wings, followed by forewings being lowered and directed forward in this position, the hindwings also moved forward, without lowering, until these were propped far ahead of their normal resting position. The abdomen remained motionless. Antennae were lowered until they touched the table and then shot backwards. Movement of fore, hindwing and antennae were repeated several times in the same order of events. After a brief period of inactivity, a hopping spastic side-walking took place alternating with wing and antennae motions as well as a tremulous and agitated moving of the legs. More wine was offered to the insect which sipped it directly from my fingertip after a somewhat hesitant uncoiling of proboscis. Another sequence of the behaviour described above was observed until all wings were placed flat on the table although they were not limp and flaccid. A few forward strokes of forewings followed by a very fast vibratory flapping preceded a period of inaction. A few minutes later the butterfly took flight in a close-spiralling pattern towards an incandescent light, hitting the hot bulb several times, alighting and again attempting flight to the light source close to which it finally perched. After a few hours it resumed normal behaviour and flew away the next day. (Gómez-Pignataro, 1977).

Opsiphanes cassina from Peru. Andrew Neild, Flickr Creative Commons

The drunken butterflies I came across were feeding on apples, not Californian wine! We are all partial to a little tipple, and if the alcohol comes in a cocktail packed full of sugars and other fruity goodies, so much the better! What convinced me that these particular butterflies were inebriated, or at least a bit tipsy, was that they were seemingly oblivious to my presence. Butterflies will normally fly off if you approach too closely; but these individuals showed no sign of moving, and it was possible to lie down in the grass beside them and stick a lens right up to them! This behaviour would seem to be highly maladaptive: putting them at risk of predation. Whether it was the delight of fermenting apple juice that kept them glued to their apples, or a sense of fearlessness and bravado that comes with intoxication, I can’t be sure!

Close up of Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) supping on windfall apple.

In fact, I had the lens (150mm macro) so close to them in some shots, that it was not possible to get much depth of field, even at f11 (below).

The red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectaring on windfall apple

Ethanol and acetic acid, together with sugars at low concentrations, were shown to act synergistically to stimulate butterfly feeding behaviour in two other nymphalid butterflies: the blue admiral (Kaniska canace) and the Indian red admiral (Vanessa indica), below (Ômura & Honda, 2003).

Indian Red Admiral (Vanessa indica) Eugene Lim. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Flickr Creative Commons.

Under normal circumstances, butterflies like the Red Admiral can be very flighty and difficult to approach, but with patience and perseverance it is usually possible to get close; especially when they are feeding. Having spent a lot of time chasing butterflies with my camera, I have the distinct impression that they get habituated to you; which is to say they get fed up of being chased and just give up and put up with the photographer!

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectaring on bell heather. Galicia, Spain

So the next time you see a butterfly behaving erratically, perhaps bumping into things, or moving sideways like a drunken sailor, it could just be that it had drunk too much apple juice on its way home!

References

Gómez-Pignataro, L. D. (1977). The behaviour of an inebriated Opsiphanes cassiae [cassina](Brassolidae). El comportamiento de una Opsiphanes cassiae [cassina](Brassolidae) embriagada. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society.31(3), 203-204.

Ômura, H., & Honda, K. (2003). Feeding responses of adult butterflies, Nymphalis xanthomelas, Kaniska canace and Vanessa indica, to components in tree sap and rotting fruits: synergistic effects of ethanol and acetic acid on sugar responsiveness. Journal of Insect Physiology49(11), 1031-1038.

rcannon992 View All

I am a retired entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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