Big Butterfly Count: how to take part and species to spot

Take part in the world's largest citizen science survey – the annual Big Butterfly Count, which assesses the state of nature in the UK. Here is our guide on how to take part, species to spot and how to attract more butterflies to your garden.

Painted lady butterfly. Getty

Learn how to take part in the 2020 Big Butterfly count, butterfly identification and how to attract more butterflies to your garden.

What is the Big Butterfly count?

The Big Butterfly Count is a UK-wide citizen science survey aimed at helping the Butterfly Conservation charity assess the health of our environment by counting the amount and type of butterflies (and some day-flying moths).

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The data gathered by the public over the next three weeks will be used by butterfly scientists to assess where conservation efforts should be targeted in the future. The data is crucial to butterfly specialists wanting to learn more about the population and habits of various butterflies.


When is the Big Butterfly count in 2020?

The Big Butterfly count will take place from Friday 17 July – Sunday 9 August 2020. 

After the record-breaking temperatures experienced in the UK, the chances of the public witnessing a wide range of butterflies is significantly higher.

However, as a result of the early summer heatwaves, the butterflies are in danger due to affected plant growth and condition from the droughts.

Why is the study so important?

According to the Butterfly Conservation, it is vital to count butterflies because they play a vital part of the ecosystem as both pollinators and components of the food chain. Many butterfly species are under threat as a result of climate change, habitat loss and farming practices, and numbers of butterflies and moths in the UK have decreased significantly since the 1970s.


How to take part in the Big Butterfly Count 2020

The Big Butterfly Count runs from Friday 17 July – Sunday 9 August 2020. 

Taking part in the Count is easy: find a sunny spot and spend 15 minutes counting the butterflies you see and then submit sightings online at www.bigbutterflycount.org or via the free Big Butterfly Count app. There’s also a handy free downloadable butterfly chart to use.


British butterfly species to spot

White and yellow butterflies (Pieridae family)

Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Brimstone butterfly. © Megan Shersby
Brimstone butterfly. © Megan Shersby

The brimstone butterfly is one of the first species to be seen each year, as they overwinter as adults. The bright yellow-green of the male is unmistakeable, even in flight. The female is white-green.

This species’ distribution is limited by its food plants – buckthorn and alder buckthorn. It is found in England, Wales and Ireland, with occasional sightings in southern Scotland.

Brimstones can be seen all year round, but peak times are April and May, and then July and August.

Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis caradmines)

Male orange-tip butterfly, showing the orange tips on the wings and the patterning on the underside of the hind wing. © Megan Shersby
Male orange-tip butterfly, showing the orange tips on the wings and the patterning on the underside of the hind wing. © Megan Shersby

The orange-tip butterfly is so-named because of the orange tips on the forewings of the male butterfly. At a glance, the female can look similar to some other white butterflies, but the key to identifying her is to look at the underside of her hind wings which is a patchwork of green and white. Both male and female orange-tips have this patterning on the underside of their hind wings.

Female orange-tip butterfly, with no orange tips on the wings, and patterning on the underside of the hind wing. © Megan Shersby
Female orange-tip butterfly, with no orange tips on the wings, and patterning on the underside of the hind wing. © Megan Shersby

Orange-tip butterflies are one of the signs that spring is truly underway, as they are among the first of the species which emerge from their pupae.

See more garden butterflies to spot in spring and early summer

Purple emperor butterfly

Pristine male purple emperor displaying all four wings, at Fermyn Woods. © Matthew Oates/Neil Hulme
Pristine male purple emperor displaying all four wings, at Fermyn Woods. © Matthew Oates/Neil Hulme

In the UK, the purple emperor is quite distinctive. It is the size of a small bird or bat, is a powerful flyer, and tends to glide and soar high up around medium-sized trees. Seen from below, it appears as a black butterfly with distinctive white bands and spots.

The purple emperor has black wings, but when caught at the right angle, the males’ upper wings have a rich and iridescent blue-purple colouration. Females can look similar to white admiral butterflies, but have an orange-ringed eyespot.

Purple emperor butterfly guide: how to identify, what they eat, and when and where to see them


How to spot a butterfly

Butterfly Conservation’ss Richard Fox shares his expert advice on how to see these lovely insects this summer.

  1. Watch the forecast as most butterflies fly only on sunny, calm days, or on overcast days over 20°C.
  2. Pick your site – flowery places with long grass are often good for butterflies; to see rarer species you need to go to the right habitats.
  3. Think like a butterfly – most seek warm, sheltered, south-facing spots.
  4. Pack binoculars for scanning the canopy, the tops of hedgerows and the middle of nettle and bramble patches.
  5. Move slowly, as butterflies have keen eyesight, and watch your shadow so that it doesn’t fall on them.
  6. Learn the plants on which the caterpillars and adults of each butterfly prefer to feed. Some species tend to stay close to their larval foodplants as adults.
  7. Plan ahead to see a particular species as different butterflies fly at different times of the year.
  8. Carry a field guide to help you identify the species you see.
  9. Take a photograph for reference (especially if you’ve seen something unusual) and confirm the sighting when you get home.
  10. Don’t leave it too late to see a butterfly as sightings tail off in the late afternoon, even on warm, sunny days.

How to make a butterfly-friendly garden

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Water your plants

Plants that are well watered stay healthy and produce more nectar for hungry butterflies. Don’t use insecticides and pesticides. You can prolong flowering by deadheading flowers and mulching with organic compost.

Welcome wild corners

Many caterpillars and pupae hibernate on the ground and among dead foliage. Tall grass with wildflowers is ideal for gatekeepers; large, small and Essex skippers; and meadow browns.

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Protect peatbogs

Avoid using peat-based compost. Peatbogs are home to a number of important species including the large heath butterfly, and you can easily buy alternatives that don’t compromise this important wildlife habitat.

Find more advice on how to make a butterfly-friendly garden