The sight of brightly coloured butterflies dancing across of a garden or feeding from flowers is a welcome sign that spring has returned. Our guide details the species you are most likely to see in your garden. We’ve split this guide into the different families: white and yellow butterflies (Pieridae family), brown, emperor, vanessid and fritillary butterflies (Nymphalidae family), and hairstreaks, coppers, blues and arguses (Lycaenidae family).
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White and yellow butterflies (Pieridae family)
Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)
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)
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.
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.
They are found across the UK and Ireland, and can be found in a variety of habitats, including some gardens.
Large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae)
Despite the name, the large white butterfly isn’t always that much larger than the small white butterfly (below), and the two are often known as ‘cabbage whites’.
There are two broods of the large white butterfly. The first adults emerge from their pupae in April, and the second brood emerges in July. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, and the caterpillars are considered pests by some gardeners that grow plants in the Brassicae family.
Small white butterfly (Pieris rapae)
The small white butterfly is very similar in appearance to the large white butterfly (above), and is also known as a cabbage white – however the caterpillars are less destructive to Brassicae plants.
Like the large white, it is found across a huge variety of habitats, and the first brood emerges mid April, followed by the second brood in late June and July.
Green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi)
Although the upper sides of the green-veined white look very similar to the large and small whites, a glimpse of the underside of its wings will show the green veins that it is named after.
Found across the UK, the first adults emerge from mid-April in the southern part of the country, with the second brood emerging from July.
Brown, emperor, vanessid and fritillary butterflies (Nymphalidae family)
Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
Red admiral butterflies can be seen all year round, as they hibernate during winter as adults. They are among the first of the species that can be seen flying as spring arrives.
The UK population is supplemented by migrating butterflies from Europe. With their distinctive black wings, red lines and white spots, this species is one of the easiest butterflies to identify – although it can be confused for a peacock butterfly in flight as both are large with dark underwings.
Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)
One of our visiting migratory species, the painted lady can sometimes arrive in huge numbers, and can be seen anywhere in the UK and Ireland.
Adults are usually seen from late March and April onwards, until about September or October. They mate and produce at least one more generation here, which then leaves the UK and Ireland to return to Northern Africa and Arabia.
Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)
The peacock’s bold red colour and four ‘eyes’ on its wings make it unmistakable (unless the wings are closed, in which case it could be confused with a red admiral or small tortoiseshell). When deterring predators, it will flash its wings to show its eyes and even create a hissing sound.
This is another species that hibernates as an adult, and is common across the UK and Ireland in a variety of habitats.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)
The small tortoiseshell butterfly could be mistaken for a painted lady (above) or comma butterfly (below), so look out for the blue markings at the edge of the wings and the alternate pattern along the leading edge of the forewings.
This is another species that can be seen very early in the year due to hibernating as an adult. It is found across all of the UK and Ireland, and in a wide range of habitats.
The UK is occasionally visited by large tortoiseshell butterflies, which are very similar in appearance.
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)
The comma is named after the little white comma-shaped mark on the underside of its hindwing, though this can be hard to spot. It’s ragged wing edges make it very distinctive, though once other orange butterflies species age and become worn, they could also have slightly ragged wing edges.
It hibernates as an adult, and can be seen for much of the year. Widespread in England and Wales, it is less common in Scotland and Ireland.
Hairstreaks, coppers, blues and arguses (Lycaenidae family)
Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)
The small copper butterfly is the only member of the Lycaena genus still found in the UK and Ireland, following the extinction of the large copper in the 1850s. The distinctive orange fore wings flecked with black spots is unmistakable, and if you can get close enough, you’ll see that freshly emerged adults have a metallic copper sheen to them.
Adults begin to emerge from mid-April, and although found across much of the UK, they do not occur in great numbers in single locations.
Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus)
As the holly blue butterfly caterpillar feeds on holly and ivy, holly blues are a common garden species found across England, Wales and parts of Ireland, with some sightings in Scotland.
Adults emerge in April, with the first generation seen into June, followed by a second generation flying between July and early September.
Main image: Peacock butterfly. © Megan Shersby