Old cigar box or zesty lemon: the sweet scent of butterfly romance


Did you know the marbled white is distinctly musky, the wall brown smells like chocolate cream and the meadow brown is scented of old cigar box?

The startling fact that butterflies’ smell was revealed by the ecological geneticist EB Ford in the first of the famous (and still going) New Naturalist series, a surprise bestseller after the second world war.

Such subtle scents are beyond the ken of my middle-aged nose – young nostrils are keener – but I can sometimes detect the zesty lemon of green-veined whites.

The purpose of this perfume is revealed by Ford’s successor, Martin Warren, whose new book, Butterflies, is a fascinating compendium of the latest scientific understanding of the planet’s 19,000 butterfly species.

Unexpectedly, butterflies’ vibrant wing colours play no part in mating but scent is crucial. The green-veined white’s scent, citral, consists of two isomers, geranial and neral; both are needed for the males to successfully woo a partner. They waft this aphrodisiac pheromone around throughout their life to attract females and repel rival males. Females release their own scent to inform the male she is ready to mate too.

Here’s to the sweet scent of butterfly romance and a swift end to one of the coldest, wettest Mays for decades.


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