Capturing butterfly behaviour in the field

Capturing animal behaviour in a photograph (or even a video) is never easy. The wonderful natural history programmes we see on television, have often taken the film-makers months, if not years of work to obtain! Interesting behavior in nature, can be short-lived, fleeting, and is therefore, quite difficult to capture sometimes; but it is very rewarding if you do manage to do so. For example, I was lucky to capture a courtship chase in these Painted Jezebel butterflies from Thailand (below).

Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete indica) male chasing female in flight. Thailand. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Interesting behaviour often occurs in-between long periods of the animal doing very little, or at least not moving very much! Butterfly watchers however, will know that butterflies are very mobile creatures; that is when they are not sitting still, i.e. soaking up rays of sunshine, or sucking up meals of nectar. On these occasions, it is of course much easier to get nice sharp images (below) which is why in most of the photographs of butterflies, they are stationary!

Small pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene) male basking in the sun. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Follow butterflies in the field, and you soon realize what incredibly dynamic insects they are; how quickly they fly from flower to flower, for example. Although the following photograph is of two stationary butterflies nectaring on a flower (it’s the usual story, you can only get a good shot when they decide to stay still!) – I well recall how fast these Lemon emigrants were moving on this occasion. It was a very hot day in northern Thailand (perhaps about 38 degrees C) and the butterflies were flying about like rockets! Flitting from flower to flower, and interacting with each other at lightning speeds! Try getting a still shot of that sort of behaviour! Not a chance.

Lemon Emigrants (Catopsilia pomona pomona) form pomona male Mae Klang, near Doi Inthanon, Thailand. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

When you do manage to capture shots of the animal on the move, they might not be the best of photographs, i.e. perfectly focused, but they often reveal little snippets of information which you might otherwise have missed. Such as the fact that butterflies often fly off to visit another flower, before they have curled up their proboscis again! Interesting to me anyway!

Cruiser (Vindula erota erota) female. Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Capturing movement, especially with a still camera often relies on good luck. Here’s another action shot of a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) being buzzed by a Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)!

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) being buzzed by Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) Scarborough, UK. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Fortunately courtship sequences are usually repeated numerous times – for example, as the male tries to woo the female – so there may be an opportunity to try again. Here for example, is a pair of Brown Argus butterflies doing a little courtship flutter.

Brown Argus courting pair (Aricia agestis) Beds, UK on 13 Aug 2019. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

The female may expose her genitalia in response to the male’s attentions, but that does not always mean that she is receptive, as the following photograph of Green-veined whites illustrates. In pierids (whites) such as Pieris napi, where the female has already mated, there is a stereotypical mate-refusal posture – her wings are pressed downwards, and her abdomen is elevated upwards – a definite No!

Green-veined white (Pieris napi) female refusal posture. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

In this case (above), I was delighted to have captured this behaviour, but it took place in the shade, so the options for getting great shots were limited. I could have used flash, but to be honest, I do not think I would have captured it at all, particularly as I did not have the flash mounted at the time.

Capturing courtship behaviour is particularly challenging because it can happen suddenly, and is then over, almost before it began. So, although, one might occasionally be in the right place and the right time, I for one, rarely have the right exposure, shutter speed or ISO setting to do it full justice! Perhaps, I should switch over to video. But things can happen very quickly. For example, I noticed this bowing behaviour going on (below) and I chased the butterflies – Meadow Browns as it turned out – into a gorse bush! As I explained in my blog about courtship bowing in Meadow browns, I just waited patiently, until they repeated the behaviour, trying to ignore the gorse spikes pressing into my flesh!

In this bowing movement, the male is brushing his scent scales (on the upper-side of his forewings) against the female’s antennae; a sudden bowing movement which transfers his pheromone for her to evaluate. If she likes it, she will mate with him. If she doesn’t; hard cheese, try another female!

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) pair, male on the left, engaging in courtship bowing. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

The truth is, I am rather obsessed about courtship bowing! It was first described by by Niko Tinbergen in classic studies carried out in the Netherlands during the early years of WWII, as I described in another blog on Grayling butterflies. Again, there are very few photographs of this behaviour, at least on the Internet – try Googling it. There are some excellent drawings which go back to Tinbergen’s study (below). I must confess, am still trying to get some good shot of courtship bowing in Graylings (it’s just a question of being in the right place at the right time).

Courtship bowing in Graylings

What I have been lucky enough to capture, is courtship bowing in Rock Graylings (below), as I described in this blog, called Rock (and roll!) Graylings! Although the courtship behaviour in these different Grayling species is very similar, there are differences, as amazing research by the Italian scientist Manuela Pinzari, and co-workers, have demonstrated (see references).

Rock Grayling (Hipparchia hermione) Courtship bowing. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

A clue that something to do with mating is happening, is the sight of a male, or female, often with genitalia extruded, fluttering around each other. In blues the male is often to be seen fluttering above the female, then alighting next to her – sometimes still fluttering – and attempting to copulate. The female may refuse copulation, if she has already mated, or the male is not to her choice. In this courting pair of Lang’s short-tailed blues (Leptotes pirithous) (below), the female may have just eclosed (emerged from her pupae) as her left hind-wing has not properly unfolded.

Leptotes pirithous courtship sequence. Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Surprisingly, in some very common species, like the peacock, Inachis io (below), and red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, although the males may chase and follow the female for hours, copulation itself is seldom observed. I Googled both these species and I could only find one video of mating peacocks. I guess they like their privacy. They are of course vulnerable when in copula.

Peacock (Aglais io). Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

For more on courtship and mating in butterflies, see my book: Cannon (2019).


Pinzari, M. (2009). A comparative analysis of mating recognition signals in graylings: Hipparchia statilinus vs. H. semele (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae, Satyrinae). Journal of insect behavior22(3), 227-244.

Pinzari, M., & Sbordoni, V. (2013). Species and mate recognition in two sympatric Grayling butterflies: Hipparchia fagi and H. hermione genava (Lepidoptera). Ethology Ecology & Evolution25(1), 28-51.

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