Colourful freedom, the ATALANTA (RED ADMIRAL) (062)

Butterflies are a symbol of freedom and colour. The atalanta is a dark brown butterfly with striking small white spots. Its wings are tipped with white spots and encircled by a necklace of red beads. Did you know that this delicate fragile flower-lover has noble origins? Draw closer and listen to my tale:

In times long gone a certain king ruled over Atlantis. He only had one daughter by the name of Atalanta. She found court life tedious: a place where everything happened according to fixed protocols and where nothing fun ever seemed to happen. The servants only talked in hushed whispers and the palace chambers never rang to the sound of laughter. The dark clothes most people had to wear following the queen’s death made things even more depressing. Princess Atalanta had only one possibility of escaping this dreary environment: going running in the vast grounds surrounding the palace. And she did this as often as possible. While she was racing down the paths and saw the green trees and bright flowers flash past, she thought about her mother and how proud she would have been that she had run even faster today than yesterday. When Atalanta reached marriageable age, the king started looking around for a suitable husband for his daughter. He organized a competition which reflected his daughter’s passion: the prince who could run faster than Atalanta would be given her hand in marriage. He fondly imagined this to be a sympathetic gesture towards his daughter; unlike the dead queen, however, the king had never been exactly enthusiastic about his daugther’s hobby. As he realized how very few contenders would be able to outpace his athletic daughter, each one would have a few hundred meters head start. To prevent rows of greedy princes from queueing outside his palace doors, the king decided that any contender who lost his race would be beheaded. Despite this deterrent, large numbers of overly ambitious princes still literally lost their head.

One day a prince from a distant overseas country announced his candidature. Everyone in the palace took an immediate shine to him. Even the king himself. It saddened him a little, however, that the prince with a far from athletic build would probably be yet another contender to lose both the race and his head that day. But the prince had hatched a plan to compensate for his lack of speed through his quick wittedness. He knew Atalanta had a passion for colourful stones. She even had a large collection of them. The prince appeared at the start of the race with his pockets bulging with small stones. When the start gun fired he immediately started scattering the colourful stones behind him as he ran. The princess could not keep her eyes off them. She had realized that the prince could not run very fast and so thought she had more than enough time to collect them. But then she forgot the time and lost the race. So she had to marry this slow runner. But as she stood next to her husband-to-be on the palace steps and noticed his smug smile, she was furious with herself, the cunning prince and all the princes who had lost their heads.

In desperation she looked up to the sky. “Oh Mother!” she said to herself out loud, “Save me from this dreary prince. I really don’t want to marry him. And I want to leave this dreary castle too. I want to be free, free to travel the world and fly past trees and flowers.”
While the king in his dismay let his wine goblet slip through his fingers and smash on the stones of the palace bordesse; while the husband-to-be was appalled to see how his plans were apparently still going dismally wrong; and while the entire palace household gaped open-mouthed and speechless at the words of their very own princess ….Atalanta rose upwards into the air like a beautiful butterfly, the dark colours of her clothes embellished by tiny orange and white stones. But now she was not running any more. No, she was flying. As free as a butterfly. And she simply loved the green trees and colourful flowers.

The Atalanta, commonly known as the Red Admiral, is a long-distance flyer and one of nature’s wonders. Not only because of its transforming from a very ordinary-looking caterpillar into a splendid butterfly, but also because of the amazing distances this very delicate migrant can cover. A fast flyer with its 15 km. per hour, the speed of an average cyclist. In spring it takes 5 weeks to fly from North Africa to Finland, some 5,000 kilometres! A small delicate butterfly which still manages to keep on course while flying across the Mediterranean or the North Sea.
Naturally, it prefers to fly with the wind, but also manages to fly against it. It flies both close to the ground and high up in the air; it even crosses the higher reaches of the Alps or the Pyrenees. An amazing feat for a small creature as light as a feather!
An Atalanta only flies one way: those leaving in the spring lay their eggs in stinging nettles somewhere in Europe and then die in the next month or so. Come autumn the butterflies born here then fly back down south to spend the winter there, because it is too cold here. The climate has been changing since the end of the last century. More winters are mild, so more Atalantas survive. The problem, however, is their food supply. Butterflies do not hibernate, so on reasonably warm winter days, they fly out in search of food. But they need the nectar along with the flowers that are then in short supply with rotting fruit as an alternative.
Butterflies are cold-blooded insects which need the sun to heat them up. That is why we often see atalantas resting with their wings spread out. Their dark clouring also helps them absorb heat more efficiently.
The underside of their wings has greyish patterning which provides them with excellent camouflage on the bark of trees, a favourite resting place.
Most Atalantas are in fact eaten by birds, toads and frogs as they migrate. Or they simply die during this very extreme and long journey. Only between 1-5 % of all caterpillars actually transform into butterflies. 


© Els Baars,

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Els Baars