Types of butterflies: the most common British butterflies


For me plants are some of the most exciting living beings, even though they live in slow motion. They have fascinating abilities and just so much potential! That's why I studied organic farming. However, since plants are rather thin on the ground in my city, I often spend time hiking in the nearby mountains at the weekend. In the future I would love to run a farm myself.

Favourite fruit: strawberries and gooseberries
Favourite vegetable: courgettes

Butterflies are one of our most beloved insects. Here we will introduce you to fifteen beautiful butterfly species native to the UK.

Peacock butterfly on white blossom
The number of butterflies has been steadily declining in the UK over the past 10 years [Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/ Shutterstock.com]

It is hard to imagine summer meadows and gardens without the delicate butterflies flitting between the plants and trees. There is such a wide variety of butterfly species, of which around 60 are native to the UK. Sadly, many of those are now classed as endangered. Over the past ten years there has been a considerable decrease in the numbers or native butterflies. But the big question is: can we turn that trend around, and if so, how? Freeing up some space in your garden for colourful wild meadow flowers is a great place to start. Below you will find 15 common British butterfly species who will certainly thank you for it.

Butterflies are intriguing creatures. Did you know that they develop special forms and colours according to their environment? Extensive research from the early 1900s found that high or low temperatures and unusual food during the larval stage led to extreme variations in both shape and colour. This explains why individual species sometimes look very different than they should in certain areas or in particularly hot years. The Camberwell beauty species is a fine example of this phenomenon. When exposed to the cold, for example, they take on clear characteristics of the large tortoiseshell butterfly.

Here are 15 common butterflies native to the UK that you may encounter in your garden.

1. Hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

The hummingbird hawk-moth is a very unusual butterfly that, at first glance, is often mistaken for a hummingbird. Although hummingbirds are not found in Europe, the comparison is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The hummingbird hawk-moth has a large body and the ability to hover in front of flowers so it can look quite similar to its namesake. They have a long proboscis (nose), about three centimetres in length, which enables them to drink in flight. They usually feed on flowers with a long calyx. These fast, agile butterflies usually migrate to Mediterranean regions in winter.

Hummingbird hawk-moth hovering at flower
The hummingbird hawk-moth looks very much like a hummingbird [Photo: Vladimir Staykov/ Shutterstock.com]

2. Painted-lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Painted-lady butterflies are quite remarkable. You will not find them in the UK come winter, as they will be on their way to the warmer climes of the Ethiopian highlands some 2485 miles away. This spectacular distance is one of the longest known insect migration routes in the world. With their orange colour, accentuated by black and white patterns, painted-lady butterflies are most striking.

While the adult butterflies enjoy feeding on thistle flowers – and are valuable for their pollination – the caterpillars prefer creeping thistles (Cirsium), stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae).

Painted-lady butterfly feeding on a thistle blossom
Painted-lady butterfly are important for pollinating thistle flowers [Photo: Marek Mierzejewski/ Shutterstock.com]

3. Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)

The brimstone will likely be the first butterfly you see in spring. By excreting a large part of their body fluid in the cold winter brimstone butterflies can survive in temperatures as low as -20°C. They emerge from hibernation as soon as it starts to warm up, but come midsummer, they enter a second resting phase – their so-called summer dormancy. This makes them one of the longest-living butterflies with a lifespan of up to 10 months. Brimstone butterflies have characteristically leaf-like wings – the males are a pretty lemon yellow while the females are more of a greenish yellow.

Brimstone butterfly with light green leaf like wings
The brimstone butterfly can survive temperatures as low as -20°C [Photo: Ferdy Timmerman/ Shutterstock.com]

4. Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

The peacock butterfly is one of the most commonly sighted butterflies in Europe. The four large peacock eyes on the reddish-brown upper side of their wings makes them easily recognisable. The eyes serve as a defense against predators. When approached, the peacock butterfly rapidly flaps its wings to show off the eyes while making a loud hissing sound in an attempt to prevent attack.

Peacock butterflies do not migrate in winter making them the first butterflies to return in the warmer spring months. They tend to hibernate in damp places such as cellars or burrows. The black and white spotted caterpillars are very easy to spot and they are found almost exclusively on nettle plants.

Peacock butterfly with eyes on its red-brown wings
Peacock butterflies hibernate in cellars or caves and warm up in the sun in spring

5. Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon)

With a wingspan of up to eight centimetres, the magnificent swallowtail is one of the largest of our native butterflies. Its wings are strikingly patterned with a blue stripe along the lower edge and two tail-like extensions on its hind wings. Fortunately, the swallowtail population has recovered in recent years, so you may see them from time to time in flower meadows or gardens. They are particularly fond of carrots, dill and fennel.

During the mating season between May and August, swallowtails can often be seen on hilltops where males and females meet. The female swallowtail lays her eggs on individual umbellifers. She will only lay very few eggs, to avoid excessive caterpillar damage to the plant.

Black white and blue patterned swallowtail butterfly
Swallowtails are one of the largest native butterflies [Photo: orlandin/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Attract move native butterfly species to your garden or balcony by planting butterfly-friendly plants.

6. Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

The small tortoiseshell butterfly’s distinctive orange and black wings speckled along the edges with bright blue crescents make it extremely popular among butterfly fans. It is not just a pretty sight though. It is also an industrious pollinator enjoying over 200 different nectar-rich plants, such as the native Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spec.), as well as exotic garden plants like the butterfly bush (Buddleja).

Those wanting to offer a home to these beautiful butterflies, will need more than just abundantly flowering plants. Small tortoiseshell caterpillars feed almost exclusively on large nettles (Urtica dioica) and the adults can often be found close to nettles too.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on flower
The small tortoiseshell butterfly visits well over 200 different plants [Photo: Ger Bosma Photos/ Shutterstock.com].

7. Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Red admiral butterflies do not have specific habitat requirements so you can often come across them in a range of places. They inhabit gardens, open landscapes with meadows and fields, and can also be found in forest clearings and orchards.

Adult red admirals like to drink from phlox, butterfly bush or goldenrods, while the caterpillars prefer nettles. Red admirals are dark brown on top, edged with a red band and black wingtips with white markings. As they do not survive in cold temperatures, these butterflies migrate in winter to southern regions of Europe.

red admiral butterfly on plant
Red admiral caterpillars feed on nettles

8. Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

The comma butterfly owes its unusual name to its unique distinguishing feature – the distinctive white “C” shape that stands out on the underside of its rear wings. The upper side of the butterfly is patterned in orange and brown. The comma butterfly is quite common in the south of Britain and feels particularly at home in damp locations as well as parks and gardens.

Comma butterflies are excellent pollinators, especially when it comes to berry bushes (they particularly enjoy drinking the juice) and should be very welcome guests in most gardens. Contrary to popular belief, comma butterflies do not suck ripe berries dry. While they do enjoy plant juices in summer, they will only take the juice from fallen fruit or already injured fruit leaving the healthy berries intact. Comma butterfly caterpillars enjoy stinging nettle (Urtica), willow (Salix), gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) and redcurrant (Ribes rubrum) plants.

Comma butterfly on bush
The comma butterfly is particularly good at pollinating berry bushes [Photo: Duncan Payne/ Shutterstock.com]

9. Marbled white butterfly (Melanargia galathea)

The marbled white butterfly is hard to miss with its striking black and white markings. They prefer nutrient-poor flowering meadows, flying to purple and violet flowers such as thistles and pincushions (Scabiosa).

The marbled white female lays her eggs in-flight where they drop to the ground and hatch. By waiting until the end of July to mow meadows and gardens, you can ensure that the caterpillars remain safe. It will also leave an adequate food supply for the adult butterflies.

Marbled white butterfly resting on flowers
The marbled white has quite distinct black and white markings

10. Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines)

When the cuckoo flower and hedge garlic are in flower, the orange-tipped butterfly is never far away. This off white coloured butterfly lives in meadows and sparse forests. The males can be distinguished from the females by their bright orange wing tips. However, the undersides of the wings of both sexes have white and green markings. The creatures are solitary and survive the winter as pupae, from which they then hatch in spring.

Orange-tip butterfly on flower
The male orange-tip butterfly has bright orange wingtips [Photo: Martin Fowler/ Shutterstock.com]

11. Large tortoiseshell butterfly (Nymphalis polychloros)

The large tortoiseshell butterfly has an astonishing wingspan of 64 to 70mm, making it a giant among butterflies. With its orange-red colouring and black and yellow pattern, the large tortoiseshell is a delight to see. It is often confused with the small tortoiseshell despite not being closely related.

Unfortunately, there has been a steady decline in the number of large tortoiseshells sighted in the UK. There are several factors that may have led to this: climate change, loss of natural habitat and the effects that Dutch elm disease has had on one of their main food sources. They usually inhabit semi-open landscapes, sunny woodland edges and semi-natural orchards.

Large tortoiseshells have a varied and quite unique diet. While the caterpillars eat leaves of various deciduous tree species, the adult butterflies feed on plant juices or fallen fruit in addition to nectar. They have also been known to feed on excrement or carrion!

Large tortoiseshell sitting on blossom
The large tortoiseshell is a giant among butterflies [Photo: David Havel/ Shutterstock.com]

12. Silver-washed fritillary butterfly (Argynnis paphia)

The silver-washed fritillary usually inhabits broad-leaved woodlands and woodland edges. They have, however, more recently extended their range of habitat to gardens and hedgerows as well. The males are an intense orange with a black-brown markings on the wings, while the females tend to be somewhat paler in colour – in the south of England there are even some that boast a beautiful bronze-green colour. On the underside, the wings of silver-washed fritillaries are greenish white with a hint of silver.

These butterflies feed on the nectar of thistles, brambles, and summer lilac. They lay their eggs on tree trunks, where the caterpillars hatch and overwinter before feeding on wild violets in spring.

Silver washed fritillary butterfly with orange-brown patterned wings
The caterpillars of the silver-washed fritillary overwinter on tree trunks

13. Camberwell beauty/mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa)

Camberwell beauty (also commonly known as mourning cloak) butterflies are very special. Their velvety brown wing surface is framed by a border of blue dots and a very distinctive cream-coloured, serrated edge. The Camberwell beauty is a large butterfly species and can have a wingspan of up to seven and a half centimetres. While they only feed on willow flowers in spring, they enjoy fallen fruit and tree sap for the rest of the year. Their natural habitat is open, moist forests of willow, birch and elm trees. Nevertheless, they can sometimes be spotted in meadow orchards and even gardens.

Camberwell beauty butterfly on a branch
The camberwell beauty only feeds on flowers in spring [Photo: Marek Mierzejewski/ Shutterstock.com]

14. Common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus)

There are many different species of blue butterflies, and as the name suggests, they are characterised by their bluish colouring. The most common species is the bluebell. The males are intensely blue on the upper side of their wings. Females, on the other hand, are mainly brown, with a blue tinge. The underside of the wings is dotted with black and orange on a light background and the wings themselves are lined with a pale fringe. Fittingly, the butterfly only lays their eggs on butterfly flowers – for example, white clover and horned clover.

Common blue butterfly feeding on pink flower
The common blue butterfly lay their eggs on top of food plants like white clover and bird’s foot trefoil [Photo: Radka Palenikova/ Shutterstock.com]

15. Small heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus)

Admittedly, with their brown-ochre wings, this small woodland creature is not exactly the most striking butterfly species. But don’t underestimate them. They are busy pollinators to a wide range of wild plants such as field scabious (Knautia arvensis) or buttercups (Ranunculus), as well as daisies (Leucanthemum) and heather (Erica). Small heath butterflies are not too choosy and will take nectar from almost all the flowering plants they find within their territory.

As its name suggests, this very useful butterfly is often found on heathland and grasslands as well as in meadows and pastures. Small heath caterpillars mainly feed on sweet grasses, for example smooth stalked meadow grass (Poa pratensis), sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina) and bristly grasses (Nardus).

Small heath butterfly on grass
Grasslands are home to the small heath butterfly [Photo: David Havel/ Shutterstock.com]
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