Many of us enjoy nothing more after a long week than relaxing with a good pint of beer. With numerous British breweries and micro-breweries crafting real ale, there is a delicious array on offer; with all exploring exciting and unique flavours. Venturing into the world of real ale is a taste sensation that will have you coming back time and again, and will revolutionise your Friday night pint.
But what has all of that got to do with a butterfly? Well, you might be surprised to learn that the comma butterfly has an intimate relationship with the history of beer production in England, and more specifically, hops. Since the 16th century, when they were first grown in England, hops have proved integral to beer production. Hops had the great advantage of preserving the beer for longer, due to their antibacterial properties, so they began to be used extensively (despite the fact that not many people actually liked the flavour at that point!).
The increased production of hops greatly favoured the comma butterfly, and they soon became the main larval food plant of the comma. The larval food plant is the plant that the caterpillars most like to much their way through as they try to eat enough to turn into a butterfly. Consequently, the fact that almost every village in England had a brewery, and would have relied upon relatively locally sourced hops, meant that the comma flourished. All this was helped along by various Acts of Parliament, initially penalising anyone using dried hops that were adulterated with bits of wood and stalk (as many imported hops were), and then prohibiting the use of anything other than hops in the bittering process. Therefore home-grown English hops were very much encouraged.
Sadly for the comma (and indeed for the English brewing industry), the situation was not to last. Increased access to clean water decreased the demand for beer; foreign hops began to be imported once more, which meant that hop production in England became limited to just a few counties; and a combination of big brands and mass migration to industrial cities caused a decline in village breweries. By the early 20th century, the situation for the comma butterfly was dire. The species was barely present except in Herefordshire in England and Monmouthshire in Wales. Many experts attribute this decline largely to the decrease in hop production.
However, there is an unlikely twist in the tale of this extraordinary butterfly. The species began to bounce back in the 1960’s, and the hero of the story is one that you may well consider to be your least favourite plant. Enter the Stinging Nettle. Nettles are a fantastic resource for butterflies, and play a vital role in providing food for the caterpillars of some of our favourite species: the comma, red admiral, small tortoiseshell and peacock.
The comma butterfly has, in the last 50 years, managed to achieve a comeback from seemingly impossible odds. However, its continued success relies on us not repeating history and taking away a vital source of food. So next time you’re digging up your garden nettles, think twice. After all, you can always contain them in a pot so that they can’t start an armed incursion into your flowerbeds. Or, if you really can’t stand nettles, perhaps the solution is to drink more British brewed beer; beer that uses home-grown hops so that hops can once again provide a home for the wonderful little comma.
To begin this very important resolution of supporting the British real ale industry, make sure you stop by our Beer Festival tomorrow night. Tickets are only £5, and all the funds raised are going towards Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. So really, you’re helping the comma butterfly twice just by turning up and having a pint. How could you resist?
All images copyright Steven Cheshire (WWT) 2016.