Common British Butterflies at a Glance

© 2006 Colin Duke BSc (Hons) & Stephen Shroud

 Comments to the author Colin Duke are welcomed.
(Revised and post-edited in Oct. 2020 by Mol Smith)

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In this article we look at some of the Common Butterflies and make comment about their flight times and behaviour throughout the seasons and their adaptive strategies. Join us on this ramble.

Butterfly Flight

Butterflies do not flutter aimlessly around the garden but instead follow precise flight paths. Those that chase butterflies with a camera for that rare moment of beauty soon learn these creatures move in different ways!!, in different places, for different reasons.

Butterflies are mostly seen on bright sunny days with low wind speeds. The Flight Periods of each species are well documented but there is considerable variation from year to year, latitude, availability of food and other complex factors. Recent research Ref 6 has shown Butterflies have two distinct types of flight pattern: fast, straight movement and slower, non-linear movement. During straight flight, the butterflies zipped along at about 2.9m/s. During the slower type of flight, the insects foraged for nectar from flowers and flew in loops, with a speed averaging 1.6m/s. Flying in loops seems to perform an orientation function, helping the insects identify flowers or hibernation spots.

The butterflies were able to identify and avoid unsuitable habitats such as dense trees from up to 200m away. They seem able to identify suitable foraging habitats from about 100m away.
Each species has adapted to a particular environment for example, the Woodland Brown living in the dappled shade of wood or the colonies Purple Hairstreak living in the high Oak tree canopy. Heath and Moorland also yield Browns and Ringlest but are less productive than the flower rich meadows. The rapid darting behaviour of Skippers Small Skipper amongst grassland is distinctive. The fast fluttering of the Orange Tip male in search of females is characteristic of this species. Path junctions, wooded edges, dry stone boundarys and railway sidings richly vegetated with branble and other specific food plants are often good vantage points to observe adults as they fly by. Some larger species appear more powerful and are capable of soaring.

Butterfly Life Cycles

The life cycle of the Butterfly is familiar to us all. Butterflies may have one brood in any year or a series of broods helping generations span harsher winter seasons when food sources are scarce. This simple cycle means there must be both larval food source as well as a nectar source at the adult stage.


All butterflies with the exception of two lay eggs on the plants either mutiply or singularly. The Ringlet and the Marbled White the exceptions, being generally grassland species, broadcast or disperse their eggs randomly over meadows. The chitinous egg shell is eaten by caterpillars and in some species Speckled Wood is essential for it to survive.


Larva can either live solitary or in groups, this species habit may depend on evolutionary survival, for example an upward head jerking of a collective brood of caterpillar can deter and remind a predator of distasteful consequence. Some caterpillars feed at night, (Meadow Brown, Wall Brown and the Ringlet ) others by day, some in combination, others changing habit as they moult.


Adult butterflies sip nectar from flowers through their tongues, which act like straws. Larva are familiar to us all as caterpillars. Some butterflies may not be able to overwinter and get round this by traveling long distances; Red Admirals and Painted Ladies are good examples seen in Britain migtating in from the continent. Many butterflies hibernate in unheated out buildings and shelter in order to get through the winter period, some may be seen flying on unseasonably warmer days in early spring.


Pupae may be generally speaking of two types. They are attached at the creamater, and held head upwards by a silken girth, or:

Butterflies can spend the winter as eggs, few as caterpillars and most as pupae. Some can over winter as adults for example Small Tortoise Shell in sheds and shelters. Tortoise Shell "webs" can often be seen on nettles. Some have one brood others two broods. Different adult species fly at different times depending on the vegetation.


Wall Browns these butterflies as the name suggests flutter close to walls often on the sunny southern dry stone walls so often seen in Yorkshire.

The Fausty Small Coppers will fight off larger Peacocks and Whites

Diet and Food Plants

Knowing butterflies is also about knowing plants well. Many species have evolved refined relationships with plants. The Cinnabar Moth is a good example feeding on Ragwort to avail of toxin. Colour warning such as the yellow and black stripes of the Cinnabar caterpillar send warning signals to birds and many caterpillars have irritating hairs along the body lenght. Common Blues also feed on Trefoil and have toxic substances.

The Caterpillars - the larval stage of a butterfly are often dependent on one specific food plant ( Black Hairstreak / Sloe) but more often restricted to a plant family. The adult Brimstone is seen often in early spring overwintering as adults and feeding on nectar of Early dog violets and Primrose. The incidence of Brimstone depends entirely on the distribution of Buckthorn their food plant. Primroses are pollinated by the long tongues of these early nectar seeking butterflies.This is soon followed by the Green Hairstreak in May feeding on rough ground with Gorse and Heather. Some butterflies will feed happily on liquid slurry, manure or decaying berries or fruit. A good example is the Small Tortoise which can be often be seen especially in early spring around slurry tanks and on dung heaps which also favour the nettle its larval food plant. The Purple Emperor, especiailly the male, may be seen sucking juices from carrion and was once a frequent visitor to the gamekeepers larder!!! Whilst the Purple Hairstreak spends its time in the tree canopy it can only on exceptionally dry summers be driven to ground level to drink but this is uncommon. These lofty creatures guard the sugar rich honey dew territory secreted by aphids high up in the tree canopy. The two generations of caterpilars of the Holly Blue show verstility by feeding on Holly and Ivy at either end of the seasons. Adult Grayling and Duke of Burgundy feed infrequently even though nectar may be available.

Where Might I See These Butterflies ?

Appendix 2 serves as a rough guide to food plant and habitat of some common butterflies. Like most things there may be variation in when they fly and indeed,what they eat depending on season, latititude availablity of habitat /dependent food plants and other complex factors.

Evolution - Adapting and Evading

Butterflies on the wing can evade damage in a variety of ways by "Concealment" or by "Warning" or signal such as the the eye spots on the wings. Two such examples are the Peacocks and Small Coppers. Wing spots on the Peacock might just deter a small bird into thinking it has bit off more than it can chew. A rapid exposure of eye spots can sometimes frighten off predators allowing enough time to escape. The smaller wing spots many species such as the Small Copper protect the main body of the butterfly should in the event of a pecking bird damage the wing.

Fig 1. Lucky escapes Peacock and Wall Brown which has lost its lower wing spots!


The mottled appearance of the Orange Tip make it admirably suited to loosing itself in the umbelifeous heads of plants. Green Hairstreaks also take on the form of the linear dappled shade seen in bladed grassland. It is also interesting to speculate what the role of irridecense might be in these species, The Yellow Brimstone and its underside looks like a dying leaf and poses no interest to any neighbour. Peacocks with their startling eyes staring back in the face of any predator have a dull charcoal dusky under making them almost imperceptible when resting in dark shady hollows of trees similarly, the ornate sculpture of the Small Tortoise is has also a dull underside like the Comma. Many of the butterflies look like dead or decaying leaves when in this state. The Fritillaries are mainly orange brown with dark spots getting their name from the spotted flowers they resemble. Fritillaries and indeed the White Admiral conceal the natural outline with bands and shading. They live predominately in open woodland clearings where dappled shade diguises there presence, felling and clearance of woodland habitats has impacted on the their numbers detrimentally

It might also be suggested that the Skippers reduce their visible area by distinctly folding they wings making them easily recognisable as a species. Small Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper

The Graylings combines a number of strategies landing and briefly flashing eye spots scaring its predator just enough to be able to hide. The butterfly then slides its conspicuous forewings beneath the hind wings, so resembling its surroundings that it cant be seen. Grayling also lean over at an angle to the sun thereby minimising shadow length.


Butterfly species may differ in their presentation of the sexes for example the Orange Tip (above ) shows the larger female with Black wing tips and spot on forewing mating with the distinctive orange tipped male. The picture adjacent also shows a vistiting male lured by the mating female. This is particularly noticable in the array of Blues where the femamles are actually Brown!!! More subtle changes are also seen


Fig 2: Webs On Nettle

Caterpillar Adaption

It is not only at the adult stages that have made evolutionary adaptions - but Caterpillars - the Larval Stages and Pupation strategy reflect also the success of this group, perhaps only obvious to the nature detective observing life in the undergrowth. Identifying Caterpillars is an "art" in itself. Ref 9 (Highly Recommended)

In order to survive many species have adapted behaviours in defence. Those caterpillars which live in groups can act in unison perhaps for example jerking their heads upward "conditioning" for example birds, to what was previously a bad experience. Changing feeding habits through larval developement, feeding nocturnally, possessing fine bristles, spinning leaves and grasses for shelter all assist in the overall survival strategy, tents and grass tubes offering some disguise and protection. Caterpillars of White Admiral will decorate themselves at Hibernation with their own " fras" breaking up any perceptible outline. The conspicuous larvae adopt an " in your face " approach with their colouration.Colour serves to signify the presence of spines or nauseous taste or smell. Certain caterpillars have structures like fierce horns, which when disturbed will adapt an alarming 'stand up and stare' approach. Most swallowtail caterpillars possesss a protrudable forked scent gland called an osmeterium which emits a foul smell. Others have spines which can cause rashes, these contain toxins, and although not fatal, can be very irritating. Some caterpillars have lumps called tubercles.

On the other hand caterpillars fall prey to predatoators of a different nature - Parasites such as the Ichneumon Wasps. Blues have developed a productive Symbiotic relationship with ants, secreting a "Sweet" fluid from the 7th abdominal segment (gland also presen to lesser degree t in the White Letter and Green Hairstreak ). Ants jealously guard these "secretors" providing some protection from parasitic wasps and farm these creatures so they may milk this "honey gland"



There are aprox 58 species of Butterfly in Britain and a further 10 that are unlikely to be seen. Butterflies ae classified into families which in very general terms correspond to their colour The Browns (Satyridae:), The Blues (Lycaenidae:), The Whites ( Pieridae), The Fritillaries ( Nymphaidae, The Skippers (Hesperidae).


This is a finely tuned group. The future of our British Butterflies is highly dependent on protecting and conserving suitable habitat and in some cases encouraging plant biodiversity to allow the special Plant-Larval relationships to establish. Ref 9 This is especially important given the changes modern agriculture and Forestry bring to grazing practices and woodland management. The importance of bridging habitat in sustaining and maintaining colonies is of importance and may be met by sympathetic agricultural management. The effect of global climate change will impact on Plants and Butterflies alike altering flight times of broods as seasons become less clearly defined.





Io inachis


(C) 2006 Colin Duke





Pyronia tithonus


(C) 2006 Colin Duke


Small Blue


Polyommatus iccarus


(C) 2006 Colin Duke


Chalkhill Blue


Lysandra coridon


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud

 Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
(Wiki commons)

 Photo by Charles J Sharp
(Wiki Commons)

Adonis Blue


Lysandra bellargus



 Photo by Charles J Sharp
(Wiki Commons)

 Photo by Charles J Sharp
(Wiki Commons)



Holly Blue


Celastrine argolius






Small Copper


Lycaena phlaeas


(C) 2006 Colin Duke


 Small Tortoise Shell


Aglais urtica


(C) 2006 Colin Duke






Polygonia c-album


(C) 2006 Colin Duke


  Red Admiral


Vanessa atlanta


(c) 2006 Colin Duke
(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud

 White Admirable


Ladoga camilla


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud



 Large White


Pieris brassica


(C) 2006 Colin Duke

 Photo by Charles J Sharp
(Wiki Commons)

 Photo by Katja Schäfer(Wiki Commons)




Hipparchia semele






Meadow Brown


  (C) 2006 Colin Duke


  Wall Brown


Lasiommata megera


(C) 2006 Colin Duke



Brown Argus


Aricia agestis
  (C) 2006 Stephen Shroud


 Orange Tip


Anthocharis cardamines






  Clouded Yellow


Colias spp


(C) 2006 Colin Duke
(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud

Photo by Charles J Sharp
(Wiki Commons)



Small Heath


Coenonympha pamphilus


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud






Gonepteryx rhamni






 Marbled White


Melanargia galathea


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud





Painted Lady


Cynthia cardui


  (C) 2006 Stephen Shroud




Aphanotopus hyperantus


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud


 Green Veined White


Artogeia napi




Wood White


Leptidea sinapsis


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud



Small Skipper


Thymelicus sylvestris


(C) 2006 Colin Duke


Large Skipper

Ochlodes venatus




(C) 2006 Colin Duke




Dingy Skipper


Erynnis tages


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud





Grizzled Skipper


Pyrgus malvae


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud





Green Hairstreak


  Callophrys rubi


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud


Purple Haitstreak


Neozephyrus quercus


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud


White Letter Hairstreak 


Strymonidia w-album




(c) Colin Duke 2006







Speckled Wood


Lopinga achine





Photo by Kars Veling - C. Van Swaay et al.
(Wiki Commons)




Woodland Brown


Pararge aegeria








Marsh Fritillary


Eurodryas aurinia








Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary


Boloria selene


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud




Pearl Bordered Fritillary


Clossiana (Boloria) euphrosyne


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud





Dark Green




Argynnis aglaja


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud


Glanville Fritillary


Melitaea cinxia


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud








 Silver Washed Fritillary


Argynnis paphia








(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud





Duke Of Burgundy


Hammearis lucina


(C) 2006 Stephen Shroud


Photo by Kristian Peters
(Wiki Commons)

Photo by Kristian Peters
(Wiki Commons)



Purple Emperor


Apatura iris




Mourning cloak in North America and the Camberwell beauty in the UK
Photo by Pavel Kirillov
(Wiki Commons)

Mourning cloak in North America and the Camberwell beauty in the UK
Photo by Pavel Kirillov
(Wiki Commons)




  Camberwell Beauty


Nymphalis antiopa



Suggested Reference:

1.EB Ford Butterflies ( New Naturalist Series ) No 23

2. The Oxford Book of Insects ( Illustred by Bee,Whiteley, Parks Text Burton Yarow et al )

3. Butterflies & Moths of Britain and Europe, Collins, H. Hoffmann and T. Marktanner

4. FSC ( Field Studies Counil ) Aid Gap - Guide to the Butterflies of Britain ISBN 85 153 848 8

5. Coppiced Woodlands, their management for wildlife. Fuller & Warren ISBN : 1 873701 32 2 2

6. Tracking butterfly flight paths across the landscape with harmonic radar E.T. Cant A1, A.D. Smith A1, D.R. Reynolds A2, J.L. Osborne A1 Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences Issue: Volume 272, Number 1565 / April 22, 2005 Pages: 785 - 790

7. Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Britain and Europe (Collins Field Guide), DJ Carter, Brian Hargreaves, Collins.ISBN: 000219080X


Web Resources:

1.a Judy Woods A definitive reference Site for Wildlife Information Judy Woods

1 b Pages on Butterflies - Judy Butterfly Page

2.A highly recommended site by Stephen Stround Amatuer Entomology Page

3.A useful site by Steven Cheshire British Butterflies

4. A Downloadable IDChart Butterflies

5. An organistion dealing and promoting in Butterfly Conservation

6. DEFRA Fact Sheets on protected species Fact Sheets

7..Malcolm Storeys On Line Field Guide BioImages - Virtual Field-Guide (UK)

8. Linda Walls Butterflies Photographed from gardens etc Garden Butterflies

9. A site dedicated to Caterpillar ID Caterpillar ID

10. Guy Padfields Europaen Butterfly Page Guys Page

11. Butterfly Flight Times When To see them UK Butterflies



We would like to thank Stephen Shroud for input on the images provided. Further work may be seen on Stephen's Amateur Entomology Pages at the following link Stephen Shroud's Amateur Entomology Pages

Appendix 1 Check List Of British Butterflies

LATIN NAME......COMMON NAME...........

....A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Aglais urticae Small Tortoise Shell
Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus
Anthocharis cardamines Orange Tip
Apatura iris Purple Emperor
Aphanotopus hyperantus Ringlet
Artogeia napi Green Veined White
Aricia agestis Brown Argus
Aricia artaxerxes Northern Brown Argus
Argynnis aglaja Dark Green Fritillary
Argynnis paphia Silver Washed Fritllary


Boloria euphrosyne Pearl Bordered Fritillary
Boloria selene Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary
Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni
Brown Argus Aricia agestis
Brown Hairstreak Thecla betula


Camberwell Beauty Nymphalis antiopa
Chalk Hill Blue Lysandra coridon
Callophrys rubi Green Hairstreak
Celastrine argolius Holly Blue
Clouded Yellow Colias crocea
Colias crocea Clouded Yellow
Coenonympha tullia Large Heath
Comma Polygonia c-album
Cupido minimus Small Blue
Cynthia cardui Painted Lady


Dingy Skipper Erynnis tages
Duke Of Burgundy Hammearis lucina


Erebia aethiops Scotch Argus
Erynnis tages Dingy Skipper
Essex Skipper Thymelicus lineola
Eurodryas aurinia Marsh Fritillary



Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus
Gonepteryx rhamni Brimstone
Glanville fritillary Melitaea cinxia
Grayl;ing Hipparchia semele
Green HairstreakCallophrys rubi
Green Veined White Pieris napi


Hammearis lucina Duke Of Burgundy
Heath Fritillary Melataea athalia
Hesperia comma Silver Spotted Skipper
High Brown Fritllary Argynnis adippe
Hipparchia semele Grayl;ing
Holly Blue Celastrine argolius


Inachis io Peacock




Ladoga camilla White Admiral
Large Blue Maculinea arion
Large Heath Coenonympha tullia
Large Skipper Ochlodes venatus
Lasiommata megeria Wall brown
Leptidea sinapsis Wood White
Lopinga achina Woodland Brown
Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon
Lycaena phlaeas Small Copper
Lysandra bellargus Adonis Blue
Lysandra coridon Chalk Hill Blue


Maculinea arion Large Blue
Maniola jurtinna Meadow Brown
Marbled White Melanargia galathea
Marsh Fritillary Eurodryas aurinia
Melitaea cinxia Glanville fritillary
Melanargia galathea Marbled White


Neozephyrus quercus Purple Hairstreak
Northern Brown Argus Aricia artaxerxes
Nymphalis antiopa Camberwell Beauty


Ochlodes venatus Large Skipper
Orange Tip Anthocharis cardamines


Painted Lady Cynthia cardui
Papilio machaon brittanicus Swallowtail
Parage aegaria aegaria Speckled Wood
Peacock Inachis io
Pearl-bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne
Pieris brassica Large White
Pieris bryonae Dark Veined White
Green Veined White Pieris napi
Pieris rapae Small White
Polygonia c-album Comma
Polyommatus iccarus Common Blue
Purple Emperor Apatura iris
Purple Hairstreak Neozephyrus quercus
Pyronia tithonus Gatekeeper



Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
Ringlet Aphanotopus hyperantus


Satyrium w-album White Letter Hairstreak
Scotch Argus Erebia aethiops
Silver Studded Blue Plebeius argus
Silver Spotted Skipper Hesperia comma
Silver Washed Fritllary Argynnis paphia
Small Blue Cupido minimus
Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas
Small Skipper Thymelicus sylvestris
Small Pearl Bordered FritillaryBoloria selene
Small Tortoise Shell Aglais urticae
Small White Pieris rapae
Speckled Wood Parage aegaria aegaria
Swallowtail Papilio machaon brittanicus


Thymelicus lineola Essex Skipper
Thymelicus sylvestris Small Skipper




Vanessa atalanta Red Admiral


Wall brown Lasiommata megeria
White Admiral Ladoga camilla
White Letter Hairstreak Satyrium w-album
Woodland Brown Lopinga achina
Wood White Leptidea sinapsis




Appendix 2. Common Locations and Dependent Plants of Butterfly Larvae

Open sunny rides and glades Meadow brown ( grasses)

** Small tortoiseshell ( stinging nettle )
Gatekeeper ( grasses )

Peacock ( stinging nettle )

Scotch argus ( grasses )

Comma ( elm,stinging nettle )
Dark green fritillary ( violets )

Duke of Burgundy ( primrose, cowslip )
Small pearl bordered fritillary ( violets )

* Holly blue ( holly, ivy )
Marsh fritillary ( devil's bit scabious )

Common blue ( bird's foot trefoil )
Red admiral ( stinging nettle )

Small copper ( sorrel )
Brimstone ( buckthorn )

Grizzled skipper ( wild strawberry )*
Dingy skipper ( bird's foot trefoil )

Chequered skipper ( moor-grass )*
Small skipper ( grasses ) Essex skipper ( grasses )

Large skipper ( grasses ) Lightly-shaded rides and glades
Ringlet ( grasses )

Wood white ( vetches )*
Newly cut woodland and ride margins
Pearl-bordered fritillary ( violets )**

High brown fritillary ( violets )*
Heath fritillary ( cow-wheat etc )**

Moderate or dappled shade

Speckled wood ( grasses ) Green-veined white ( cresses )
White admiral ( honeysuckle )*

Silver-washed fritillary ( violets )*

Tree or shrub feeders, mostly in the canopy

Large tortoiseshell ( elm, sallow ) Purple emperor ( sallow )*
Brown hairstreak ( blackthorn )* Purple hairstreak ( oak )
White-letter hairstreak ( elm ) Black hairstreak ( blackthorn )**

 Micscape Editor acknowledgement: The editor would like to thank the authors for the huge amount of their time, skill and patient photography which has been required to compile this resource.


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