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In search of the “blue iridescent fire butterfly”: Violet Copper

Some butterflies are beautiful by having a striking and colourful appearance. In Europe we have the Two-tailed Pasha, species of Festoon and Swallowtail and perhaps the most striking example in the UK, the Purple Emperor. My most wanted European butterfly however has always been a small, delicate but stunningly beautiful species, the Violet Copper (Lycaena helle). The German name for this species is Blauschillender feuerfalter, translating appropriately to “blue iridescent fire butterfly”. The French name is Cuivre de la bistorte, linking the species to its food plant for its caterpillars, Bistort (Polygonum bistorta) and the Latin “helle” means bog or marsh. So this is a species found in marshy boggy habitat where there is plentiful Bistort. That’s sadly the reason this is an endangered and rare species in Europe, with significant habitat loss due to land drainage.


Plentiful Bistort flowers in the marshy habitat for Violet Copper


This year (2024) had started with a horrible wet and cold spring and butterfly numbers have been low in the UK and across Europe in general based on comments we have heard from France across to Slovenia. However May half term week saw us catch the ferry to Calais and head east across to south-eastern Belgium. The week was planned around a couple of days at the start to look for Violet Copper, followed by family-friendly trips to chocolate factories, a theme park and castles. With this in mind, and the ever changing weather forecast, making the most of butterfly friendly weather was a must. I’d researched thoroughly suitable places to go and at 3pm on our first day, we parked up near the premier site on my list. Cameras and binoculars grabbed, I headed out along the route I’d marked as offering the best habitat.


Orange-Tip and Brimstone were quite numerous which bolstered my hopes, but upon arriving in an area with plentiful Bistort, the chilly wind wasn’t encouraging and at first I saw no butterflies at all. Then a Green-veined White flew low over a patch of flowers and a smaller butterfly darted up to chase it before returning to perch up and nectar on the flower heads of Bistort. Through binoculars I could see it was indeed a male Violet Copper and fortunately it moved closer to the path allowing some quick record shots on the camera. I called Nicky and in ten minutes she had joined me. The wind had died down and the sun was out and over the next two hours we were rewarded with beautiful views of about 12 male and two female Violet Copper.


First views of Violet Copper, catching the violet iridescence partly in dull sunshine


The violet colour, prominent on the males, comes from refracting sunlight, so you need the right angle on a sunny day to catch the colour. At first, most views showed glimpses of the violet, when the butterfly was side on and the wing angle to line of sight was small. But over time a few males perched up at just the right position for the violet to show beautifully and the stunning mix of violet and copper-orange was simply beautiful.


A stunning male Violet Copper catches the light to show the violet across both wings!


The underwing of this gorgeous little butterfly shouldn’t be forgotten either, being far brighter orange than on Small Copper or, in mainland Europe, the Sooty Copper. Combined with a white edging to black markings inside of a line of sub-marginal bright orange spots, this makes a very attractive sight.


Underside of a male Violet Copper nectaring on Bistort


The following day was a more relaxed version of the Saturday afternoon and, after a dull start, more Violet Copper were seen, likely about 20 different individuals over a three hour walk through abundant Bistort. This habitat itself was stunningly beautiful and the sight of a male Violet Copper amongst the pink Bistort flowers in the boggy habitat was stunning.


The sight of a Violet Copper amongst the pink flower heads of the Bistort was truly stunning


Other butterflies were few and far between, but we did see a total of about six Chequered Skipper, three Green Hairstreak and a single Dingy Skipper. We also visited some sphagnum rich pools where White-faced Darter and some commoner dragonflies and damselflies were seen. The total butterfly lost was 12 species, with by far Violet Copper being the most numerous!

(Butterfly list: Chequered Skipper-6, Grizzled Skipper-1, Green-veined White-3, Brimstone-many, Orange Tip-many, Green Hairstreak-3, Violet Copper-12,20+,1 on three days respectively, Holly Blue-1, Red Admiral-2, Comma-1, Woodland Ringlet-1, Small Heath-1)

 

Left: Chequered Skipper; Middle: Grizzled Skipper; Right: White-faced Darter


We travelled on, visiting Maastricht to see Eagle Owl at the now famous nest site in a quarry to the south of the city, and then it was chocolate, theme park and beer as the focus. This was well-timed as the weather had become far colder, windier and dull with frequent showers, not the best for butterflies! We did manage a visit to a Beaver dam near a cycle path just across the border in Germany and my son and I were lucky to see a Beaver collecting food. We also visited the amazing Chateau de Vianden in Luxemburg which completed a circuit back in to Belgium. Our final day saw us arrive back where we started, but in very different weather, decidedly dull and cool. However I couldn’t resist a walk through the marsh to enjoy the sight of the Bistort flowers, but with no real hope of some final views of Violet Copper. However, amazingly, I found a female on the path and she happily crawled onto my warm hand out of the wind. This was an enchanting moment for me, incredible close views of my most wanted butterfly species! After 5 minutes she was clearly warmed up and I gently placed her onto a bistort flower where she nectared for 10 minutes before flying up to roost in a small tree. What a perfect ending to the trip!


Oh wow, female Violet Copper on my finger!


The same female Violet Copper nectaring on Bistort before flying up in to a tree to roost


If you'd like to see some video clips of Violet Coppers please go to:


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