British Butterflies and Moths


The best way to distinguish between butterflies and moths is to examine their antennae. In butterflies the antennae swell out at the tips to form minute clubs; in moths they are very varied and often feathery. Butterflies normally rest with their wings folded vertically above their backs; many moths fold their wings backward so that the forewing covers the hind wing.

There are more than 60 species of butterfly to be found in Britain. Between March and November one kind or another is on the wing, providing movement and colour in the garden and pollinating plants in the same way as the bees. But the caterpillars of some of them are harmful and should be destroyed.

The male wall (Parage megoera) is brownish-orange with dark brown markings. It has a black and white spot on each fore-wing and four similar spots on each hind wing. The colour of the female is more variable and it has larger wings with clear transverse lines. The wall is on the wing from May to August. The caterpillar feeds on grasses, especially couch and cock’s foot, and is pale green dotted with white, with three pale lines edged with dark green on its back and a white line on each side. The head is green, dotted with white.

The colour of the male meadow brown butterfly (Epinephele jurtina) is warm brown with dull orange markings. It has a black and white spot within a patch of orange near the tips of the wings. The colour of the female is very variable; it has no black and is more marked with orange which forms a broad patch on the forewings. The butterfly is on the wing from June to September. The caterpillar feeds on grasses and is bright green, covered with short hairs and with a darker green line down the back. The head is a darker green than the body.

Both male and female red admiral (Pyrameis atalanta)) are a warm brown with scarlet bands and white dots on the fore-wings and black dots on scarlet bands on the hind wings. The white edges of the wings are dotted with black and there is a tracing of blue on the margins of the forewings and a little blue at the angle of the hind wings. They are on the wing from May to October or November. The caterpillars feed on nettles and are variable in colour. Some are almost black, freckled with white, others are grey marked with yellowish green. Some have two yellow stripes on the sides. The head is black.

The small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) is reddish-orange, with yellow patches, black markings of varying size, and blue crescents. It is on the wing from June to September. The caterpillar feeds on nettles, and is yellowish freckled with black, with a black line bordered by yellow down the centre of the back. The head is black, speckled with yellow.

The peacock (Vanessa io) acquired its name because of the ‘peacock’s eyes’ on the brownish-red wings. The hind wings also have ‘eyes’ and are a much darker brown, faintly marked with yellow near the base. The peacock is on the wing from March or April to August. The caterpillar feeds on nettles and is velvety black with white spots. The head is glossy black.

The male common blue (Polyommatus icarus) is blue, tinged with violet, with black edges to the wings. The female is generally brown and has blue-scaled wings edged with a line of orange crescents and black spots. This butterfly is on the wing from April to September. The caterpillar feeds on bird’s-foot trefoil and rest-harrow, and is green and wrinkly, covered with brownish hairs and with a darker line down the centre of the back. The head is black.

The large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae) is white with broad black tips to the forewings and a black mark on the front edge of the hind wings. The female also has two black marks on the forewings. The large white is on the wing usually from May to September. The caterpillar feeds on all brassicas and is greenish with yellow lines on the back and sides, speckled with small, blackish warts, and smells unpleasantly.

The small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) is white, but at times somewhat yellowish, and generally has a slight clouding of black on the tips of the forewings and black spots near the centre of the wings; the markings are rather faint in the male. The butterfly is on the wing from May to September, occasionally longer. The caterpillar feeds on plants of the cabbage family as well as on nasturtiums and mignonette. It is green with a yellow line on the back and a row of yellow dots on the sides, speckled with black and covered with short black hairs. The head is brown.

The white or creamy-white butterfly, orange tip (Euchloe cardamines) has hind wings mottled with greenish-grey. The male has a black spot on a large orange patch on the forewing, the tip of which is black. This orange colour is replaced in the female by a smaller patch of dark grey. The butterfly is on the wing from mid-April to August, chiefly in June. The caterpillar feeds particularly on hedge-mustard and cuckoo-flower, and is a dull green, bluer above and yellower below, covered with fine white and black hairs, and with a white line along the sides.

The tips of the forewings on the brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) are pointed. The male is sulphur-yellow with an orange spot at the centre of each wing and small rust-red dots along the front and outer margins of the forewings. The female has similar markings but is a greenish-yellow colour. The butterfly is on the wing from March (sometimes February) to August. The caterpillar feeds on the buckthorn and is green becoming bluer on the flanks, with a pale line along the sides, the whole speckled finely with black.


Although moths vastly outnumber butterflies, they are chiefly active at dusk and so are seldom noticed. They are attracted to bright lights and can also be collected on tree trunks that have been smeared with sugar solution. The larvae of some moths do great damage to plants and trees.

The following are four of the most commonly found larger moths.

The male lackey (Malacosoma neustria) varies from pale yellow to pale reddish-or dark-brown, and the female from pale to reddish-brown. They are on the wing during July and August. The caterpillar feeds on fruit trees as well as on hawthorn, birch, elm, oak and willow. It is blue-grey and hairy with a thin white line down the middle of the back flanked by reddish stripes.

The forewings of the garden tiger (Arctia caja) are whitish, barred with brown, the hind wings vary in colour from bright scarlet to orange and even yellow, heavily spotted with blue-black. This moth is on the wing in July and sometimes in August. The caterpillar feeds on a very wide variety of plants and is almost black, being densely covered with long black hairs on the back and reddish hairs on the sides.

The common yellow underwing (Noctua pronuba) has forewings which range in colour from sandy and reddish-browns to dark purplish-brown, and yellow hind wings bordered with black. It is on the wing chiefly in June and July, but has been seen earlier. It is frequently disturbed during the day. The caterpillar feeds on grasses and low plants and is a brownish colour, sometimes yellowish or tinged with green, and has dull yellow lines on the back. The head is pale brown with darker marks.

The magpie (Abraxus grossulariata) is white or yellowish with orange bands and black spots and dashes on the forewings. The hind wings are less heavily spotted with black and have no orange. The magpie moth is on the wing in July and August. The caterpillar feeds on currants, gooseberries, apples, hawthorn, privet and elm, and is generally a creamy white with black patches and dots and a red line on the sides. It is sometimes completely black. The head is black.

16. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles, Garden Management, Gardening Calendar | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on British Butterflies and Moths


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