Britain & Europe
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
Tribe - NYMPHALINI
Inachis io, Alner's Gorse, Dorset ©
The Peacock is considered by many to
be the most beautiful butterfly in the world. Its beauty was remarked upon as early as 1634 when Sir Theodore
de Mayerne, physician to King Charles 1, noted that the "eyes"
on the wings of the Peacock butterfly "shine
curiously like stars, and do cast about them sparks of the
colours of the Rainbow".
is distributed throughout most of Europe but is absent from
northern Scandinavia, and from most of southern Spain and
Portugal. Beyond Europe its range extends across temperate Asia
are fairly nomadic in behaviour and can be found in most habitats in England and Wales. In Scotland and Ireland
they have generally been regarded as scarce, but there
is evidence that they are spreading further north in response to
global warming, with a few records even from the Outer Hebrides.
Inachis io, Stockbridge Down, Hampshire ©
often close their wings when settled,
but if disturbed
suddenly re-open them, producing a
rasping or hissing sound
created by rubbing the
veins on the forewings and hindwings together.
The sudden appearance of the “peacock eyes” probably functions
to startle attacking birds.
effect is short-lived however, and having recovered
it's senses the bird
"eyes" then serve to divert the
attack away from the butterfly's vulnerable body and onto the
outer part of the
can continue to fly normally, even with large chunks pecked out
of their wings.
It is thought that the hissing noise is a defence against bats
which may disturb the butterflies when they enter caves or
hollow tree trunks to roost or hibernate.
In a study by Stockholm
University, the ocelli of several Peacocks were blanked out with a
marker pen. When exposed to blue tits, 13 out of 20 were attacked and eaten. A
control group of
Peacocks with the ocelli intact fared much better, with only a
single butterfly attacked out of a group of 34. It can be concluded
that in 97% of encounters with blue tits, the ocelli are
effective as a deterrent, and the butterfly will escape
unharmed. A project carried out by another biologist found that
normally marked Peacocks escaped attacks by yellow buntings 76%
more often than Peacocks that had their eyespots painted out.
the Peacock is a widespread and common
resident, often seen in gardens, woodlands and flowery hillsides in late summer. The
butterflies go into hibernation in September,
over-wintering in hollow tree trunks, wood stacks, farm
rabbit burrows and other locations
where they can find shelter and darkness.
In early spring they awaken and can often be often seen basking on bare
earth on paths
through woodland, along lightly wooded riverbanks, disused railway
cuttings, old quarries and farmland.
In April and May, female Peacocks can often be
seen flying around clumps of stinging nettle
in woodland glades,
country lanes and farmland. They eventually settle under the
upper leaves of the nettles, where they lay their dull green
spherical eggs in large heaps.
Immediately after hatching, the larvae spin a silken web
on the upper leaves of the nettles, and live within this during
the early instars, venturing out to feed in warm weather. They all feed and grow at roughly the same rate. After each moult they
divide into increasingly
smaller groups, each time moving on to another nearby plant. They are conspicuous, feeding openly in groups on
the upper surface of the leaves.
If disturbed, the entire mass of caterpillars wriggle violently,
presumably as a defence against parasitoid wasps or flies.
Nevertheless over 90% of larvae are said to succumb to attack by the Tachinid fly Zenilla
vulgaris ( other Tachinids including
Sturmia bella and
Phryxe vulgaris are also recorded
as parasitizing Inachis io ).
the time they reach the final instar the larvae become solitary in behaviour.
They are handsome velvety black creatures,
covered with black spikes, and studded with tiny white
The chrysalis is pale green
with a dark diagonal streak across the wing cases,
reputedly be found hanging from woody stems
or tree trunks in the
vicinity of nettles.
Inachis io, Alice Holt forest, Hampshire ©
emerge in late July and throughout August, and generally spend
a few days
close to the emergence site, nectaring at thistles,
knapweeds, hemp agrimony,
At Noar Hill in Hampshire on 31st July 2009
there were an exceptional number of Peacocks present, well
in excess of 150, by far the highest concentration of this
species I have ever seen. There were often 15 or 20 on a small
patch of thistle or a single clump of hemp agrimony. At about
6.30pm the breeze suddenly dropped, and cloud
cover obscured the sun. The Peacocks quickly responded by
settling in groups of up to 6 to bask on ant hills and patches
of bare chalk.
After dispersing from the "honey pot" nectaring areas in the
countryside, the adults commonly visit gardens where they nectar
at michaelmas daisies, ice plant and buddleia. In September they return
once more to the countryside,
visiting flowery hillsides where they gorge themselves on the
nectar of devil's bit
scabious to prepare themselves for the long winter ahead.
By late September they enter hibernation, usually at
woodland sites, where they spend the winter months hidden in
hollow tree trunks, log piles, farm out-buildings and other cool
dark places where their blackish mottled undersides provide them
with excellent camouflage. They
re-awaken on the first sunny days of spring - sometimes as early
January ( e.g. I watched a Peacock basking on a rock in Stansted
Forest on 26th January 2008 ),
early-mid March is more typical. They are very long lived
butterflies, and there are usually a few individuals flying in
late May or even at the beginning of June, almost overlapping
with the next generation of adults.
Inachis io, Noar Hill, Hampshire ©
In spring Peacocks will use almost any available nectar source,
including blackthorn, bugle,
bluebell, cuckoo flower,
During April, at around midday, males establish small territories
on the ground, typically choosing sunny sheltered spots close to
woodland edges, or along woodland rides. Often as many as a
dozen males will set up their territories close together along a
woodland track, and each will instantly fly up to chase after
bee, fly or butterfly.
In April 2006 I watched 2 males that had set up
territories about 5m
apart, along a ride in Stansted
Forest. One male had been chasing
a Comma, and
encroached into the territory of the other male Peacock. A
sortie then took place,
rapidly to a height of about 20m before separating and
returning to their original territories. On another occasion I
male Comma defending it's
territory against a Peacock.
Despite the greater size of the Peacock, which
the territory, it was successfully ousted by the Comma.
In April 2007 at Botley Wood I
watched a sortie between a male Comma and a male
Peacock both of who believed they had "ownership" of a
particular birch log. The pair engaged in battle dozens of times
during a 20 minute period but eventually the Peacock was
driven off, leaving the Comma to occupy the territory.
When female Peacocks
pass through the male territories they are instantly intercepted
and pursued at high speed. Often the chasing male will
inadvertently fly into the dominion of another male, and a
territorial battle will take place during which the female will
escape. Despite the abundance of the butterfly, neither myself,
or as far as I am aware anyone else, has observed the courtship
or found a copulated pair.
Inachis io, Alner's Gorse, Dorset ©
Inachis io, Noar Hill, Hampshire ©