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An Introduction to Butterflies in the United Kingdom

Updated on May 26, 2017
Adult cabbage white butterfly (Pieris brassicae)
Adult cabbage white butterfly (Pieris brassicae) | Source

Butterflies are found in almost every country in the world and there are believed to be at around 17,500 different species. In the United Kingdom there are 58 main species that can be found as well as a few others that are occasionally seen here. Some butterflies, such as the painted lady can be found in many different areas but others are much harder to spot and may only live in a certain area or be present in very small numbers. A good field guide can be a great asset in identifying butterflies correctly.

Chequered skipper butterfly (Carterocephalus palaemon)
Chequered skipper butterfly (Carterocephalus palaemon) | Source
Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)
Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) | Source
Common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus)
Common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) | Source

Most British butterflies hibernate which allows them to survive the harsher weather and then emerge once the warmer weather returns. Other species that are less hardy to the colder weather, such as the Painted Lady migrate south to warmer countries and will return the following year. There are also species of butterfly found in the UK that have the ability to overwinter as eggs, caterpillars or pupae.

Butterflies have a large number of predators at every stage of their four stage lifecycle (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly). Mammals, birds, spiders and centipedes are among the carnivores that will eat butterfly eggs, caterpillars, pupae and even the adults if they are able to catch them. Parasitic insects also lay their eggs on the immature stages which causes further losses. In order to combat predators caterpillars and butterflies have evolved a range of defences such as spines, chemical defences, protective colouring and patterns and through symbiotic relationships with other creatures. Many butterflies colouring allows them to blend into their surroundings and be able to hide from predators or colours and patterns may make the butterfly look similar to another less desirable animal or item. One example of this is the black hairstreak chrysalis which looks like bird droppings. Some butterflies and caterpillars have developed chemical defences such as hairs that carry toxins. Colour is also used to attract mates – generally protective colourings are on the underside of the wings and display colours are on the upper side. An interesting point to consider when it comes to colouring is that butterflies do not see in the same way as humans due to them having compound eye made up of thousands of tiny lenses. Butterflies are also able to ultraviolet wavelengths so what they see in their colourings maybe very different to what we humans are seeing.

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)
Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) | Source
Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon)
Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) | Source
High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe)
High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) | Source
Clouded Yellow butterfly (Colias croceus)
Clouded Yellow butterfly (Colias croceus) | Source

Although butterflies can cause problems to gardeners and to crops they are a very attractive insect that brings a great deal of pleasure to children and adults alike. Sadly due to many changes in the landscape and loss of habitat some butterfly species are becoming harder to find as their numbers drop. Most species of butterfly in the United Kingdom have very specific habit needs either related to food sources or to the immediate environment. Butterflies need a warm, sheltered but sunny habitat in order to thrive and the changes over recent decades in agricultural and woodland management methods have meant that these are being lost causing some species of butterfly such as the high brown fritillary to decline drastically. Some species in the UK are legal protected. Six species – heath fritillary, marsh fritillary and high brown fritillary, large copper, large blue and swallowtail butterflies are fully protected and it is illegal to catch a further eighteen species in the wild. These include the silver-spotted skipper, Adonis blue, large heath fritillary, white-letter hairstreak and chequered skipper.

For anyone wishing to take practical steps to help butterflies in the United Kingdom, Butterfly conservation are a charity that are dedicated to protecting and helping butterflies all over the country. They have many ways in which people can help them including by monetary donation, volunteering, fundraising and by monitoring butterflies around the country. More information about the charity, their work and how to help can be found on their website

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) | Source

© 2014 Claire


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    • Elderberry Arts profile image

      Claire 3 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      Thank you for your kind comment. I can sympathise with you over the cabbage whites, our neighbour where we lived before had a large bush the butterflies loved. Was nice to see them but they caused a lot of damage to my veg to the point where I ended up starting over with a new patch at the opposite end of the garden.

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 3 years ago from Southwest England

      Very nice hub, with great information and pictures. I have had a lot of small tortoiseshells in my garden this year, but not many cabbage whites thankfully - they were a real pest in my veggie patch last year.