Early butterflies

Posted: Monday 17 March 2014
by Adam Pasco

The last few days of warm weather hasn't only tempted me back outside after the wet start to the year, but has also brought out many butterflies.

The last few days of warm weather hasn't only tempted me back outside after the wet start to the year, but has also brought out many butterflies - more than I can ever remember seeing in March.

One of the earliest I usually see in spring is the brimstone. This is quite a large butterfly with very pale yellow wings. I wasn't disappointed when walking through local woodland at the weekend: I spotted several. (I suppose it might have been the same one following me on my walk, but I think there was more than one.) These early-flying brimstones will have overwintered as adults, and they've just been waiting for warmer weather to encourage them out of hibernation.

Hopefully they'll find a mate and then search out their favourite egg-laying plants such as buckthorn (Rhamnus cathertica) and alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus).  I've never seen them settle for me to inspect up close, just brimstones flying rather erratically around either searching for food, a mate or an egg-laying site.

But these brimstone aren't alone. Also flying and settling in the sun this week I've spotted peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma butterflies. Again, I think these were probably overwintering adults, but one small tortoiseshell I spotted was also enjoying a reviving feed of nectar from a clump of primulas.

If you're not familiar with all the butterflies you see then you'll find a useful pictorial identification guide on the Butterfly Conservation website. The main problem I have when accurately identifying some butterflies is that many don't sit still for long, if at all. Often, I catch a glimpse of one flitting across my garden without stopping. Unless one's experienced at identifying butterflies in flight it can be hard to be certain which species it was.

As pleasant as it is identifying early butterflies in the garden, there is a serious side to the matter. The Butterfly Conservation Trust is concerned on several counts. First, those butterflies on the wing need food, and may not find enough open flowers at this time of year to sustain them. Second, overwintering butterfly eggs, pupae and caterpillars are vulnerable. Warm weather speeds up their metabolism, so they may run out of energy before completing the next stage of their life cycle. Third, pathogens they may contain in their bodies will be more active in warmer conditions, and may prove lethal. Let's hope for the best and do what we can by providing food plants for insects for as much of the year as possible.

Which early-flying butterflies have you spotted in your garden?

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Early butterflies
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

LouatLarches 19/03/2014 at 06:28

We've seen the Tortoiseshell for sure and others too, though I didn't register their type. I'm desperately eating the tops of the over wintered brussel sprouts before these painted creatures lay eggs!

Fleurisa 19/03/2014 at 09:28

You only need to worry about cabbage white butterflies laying eggs on brassicas!

Adam Pasco 19/03/2014 at 11:51

Yes, it's only cabbage white butterflies that will lay eggs on brassicas, and a fine netting cage built over these helps keep them off, as well as keeping pigeons away.

Four of our favourite native butterflies use stinging nettles to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to feed on. These include the Peacock, Coma, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral.

So it pays to leave some nettles around in quiet corners or natural 'wild' areas to provide a nursery for native butterflies!

nutcutlet 19/03/2014 at 13:52

I think the whites around at the moment are female brimstones. They're safe

cera wilkins 21/03/2014 at 13:54

I had 16 peacock butterflies hibernating on the ceiling of my chicken shed since early September last year. Today there are only 7 left, the others must have woken up and gone. I did see a peacock this morning, so butterflies are about now, but plenty of bees.


See more comments...