Large white on thistle Wicken Fen. Credit Andrew Bladon

White and yellow butterflies

Matt Hayes, Research Assistant writes:

Matthew Hayes, portrait photograph

Whilst everyone is being asked to stay at home it’s important that we continue to look outside and engage with the natural world. To help with this, we are going to be blogging about wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden.

This set of posts will look at different groups of common butterflies as well as some historical species that have been lost or suffered declines. Read to the end for tips on how to support butterflies where you live.

Family Pieridae

Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni

Brimstone male, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Male brimstone.
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge

This species is one of longest-lived butterflies in the UK and is also one of the first that you are likely to see in the New Year. It can survive our cold winters as an adult, by hunkering down in a sheltered location away from the elements. Individuals emerge in the first warm days of spring and in recent years have been seen flying as early as February.

Brimstone female, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Female brimstone.
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge

Adults can then be seen on the wing for nearly the entire year, before hiding away again for winter. The males tend to emerge first and have a distinctive sulphur yellow colour, whereas the females generally emerge a few weeks later and are a much paler greeny-white. This means females can be quite easily confused with other white butterflies, but they have distinctive pointed wing tips, which make them resemble leaves.

The adults lay their eggs on buckthorn, which the caterpillars feed on, and the species is widespread across all of England and most of Wales. Some suggest that the distinctive yellow colour of the male brimstone is what gave rise to the term ‘butter’-‘fly’.

Brimstone bingo

A sighting is worth 4 points in Open your Window Bingo!
Click the image to find out more…

Small white, Pieris rapae & large white, Pieris brassicae

Small white, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Small white.
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Large white, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Large white.
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge

Two other white butterflies you are likely to see in your garden, which can be easily confused with each other, are the small and large white. You may commonly hear these two butterflies being referred to as ‘cabbage whites’, a name they have received due to the fact that their caterpillars feed on cabbages.

Large white, Pieris brassicae, on thistle Wicken Fen. Credit Andrew Bladon
Large white, Pieris brassicae, on thistle Wicken Fen.
Credit Andrew Bladon

As such, many regard these species as a pest but this is a real shame, as they are attractive insects, which liven up gardens all across the United Kingdom and Ireland. Both butterflies have two generations each year and occasionally a third in late summer or autumn. Emergence dates have been getting earlier with a warming climate, but the two broods of both species can generally be seen from April – June and July – September.

The number and intensity of black spots on their wings varies between males and females and the different generations within a year. However, this is hard to see unless viewed up close, and they otherwise look very similar.

As their names suggest, you can separate the two species based on size, with the small white rarely having a wingspan greater than 5cm, while the large white can reach 7cm wingspan. However, this is by no means a strict rule, with many large and small individuals of each species being seen every year. A better indicator is that the large white has more heavily marked forewings, with a larger, darker black mark on its wingtip.

Green-veined white, Pieris napi

Green-veined white, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Green-veined white, Pieris napi, Norfolk. Credit Andrew Bladon
Green-veined white, Pieris napi, Norfolk.
Credit Andrew Bladon

Just to make sure things are not too easy for you when trying to identify butterflies in your garden, this is another species of white butterfly that can be confused with other members of the group. It is a similar size to the small white but is distinguished by green vein markings on the underside of its wings.

It is widespread across the entire British Isles, being found in damp sheltered habitats, but is less commonly seen in gardens than the two ‘cabbage’ whites.

The green-veined white usually has two generations each year, with a springtime brood emerging from April – June and a summer brood emerging from July – September. It lays eggs on a variety of crucifers, including garlic mustard, cuckooflower and, similar to its relatives, wild cabbage.

Orange-tip, Anthocaris cardamines

Orange tip male, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Male orange tip.
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Orange tip female, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Female orange tip.
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge

With many of our native butterflies, a good first attempt when trying to identify them is to simply say what you see. This beautiful species is a good example, as it is named after its prominent orange wingtips. However, these are only possessed by the males, with the wingtips of females being grey.

Orange tips, Anthocaris cardamines, stood back-to-back mating. Credit Andrew Bladon
Orange tips, Anthocaris cardamines, stood back-to-back mating.
Credit Andrew Bladon

One theory for this sexual dimorphism is that different flight behaviours have driven the selection of different colourations. The males are much more likely to be seen as they fly around patrolling for a mate, whereas the females remain hunkered down in the undergrowth for most of the day. As such, the male is far more exposed than the female and it is thought that the bright orange may act as a warning colouration to dissuade predators.

The larval foodplants of the orange-tip, cuckooflower and garlic mustard, contain compounds that may be distasteful to some predators, so the warning sign may be genuine. The female spends less of her time on show and is therefore able to rely more on camouflage to avoid being eaten. The black wingtips blend into the background far more easily and both sexes have beautiful mottled underwings that resemble green foliage. This springtime butterfly is usually seen on the wing from April – June, before giving way to other butterflies later in the season.

Species of the Past

Black-veined white, Aporia crataegi

Black-veined white, University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge

If you were to look out of your window a few hundred years ago, you may well have seen another species of white butterfly that is today extinct in the UK. The black-veined white is still common on the continent but went extinct in this country during the 1920s.

Populations of this species had always undergone strong fluctuations, rising and falling in number from year to year, but the exact reason for its decline in the UK, and the failure of reintroduction attempts, remains largely unknown. Suitable habitats in the form of gardens and grazing land are still present, so more study is needed to understand why this species disappeared. It used to emerge from June – August and laid eggs on a number of plant species, including Blackthorn and Hawthorn.

Gardening for the ‘whites and yellows’

Larval foodplants:

Cabbage painting. Credit S Steele
Cabbage plant

One of the best things you can do to support members of this family of butterflies is to grow a patch of vegetables (Brassicaceae family) specifically for them. Not only will this provide food for the caterpillars of many species, but it will help give them a refuge and avoid conflict with other vegetable growers who may view the visiting butterflies as pests.

A plot of cabbages will support the large and small whites, with the addition of garlic mustard and cuckooflower bolstering populations of the green-veined white and orange-tip. Garlic mustard likes shady conditions and does well when planted along the edge of a hedgerow. Make sure you don’t cut the garlic mustard plants back after flowering, as the cryptic caterpillars will still be feeding on the seed pods.

Orange tip feeding, Anthocaris cardamines. Credit Ed Turner
Orange tip feeding, Anthocaris cardamines.
Credit Ed Turner

To support the brimstone, you could plant a common or alder buckthorn bush alongside your vegetable patch. As one of the earliest butterflies you are likely to see every year, you can also help brimstones by planting some early flowering plants, such as primroses and bluebells. This will help them regain their energy levels when other nectar sources are scarce.


For more detailed information on gardening for butterflies and wildlife in general please see:

Butterfly Conservation (website)

The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (website)

For more detailed information on the butterflies of the British Isles please see:

Butterfly Conservation (website)

UK Butterflies (website)

The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (Book):

Lewington, R & Thomas, J (2014). The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland. New Revised Edition. Oxford: British Wildlife Publishing Ltd.


The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund is run by the Museums Association, funding projects that develop collections to achieve social impact.

5 thoughts on “White and yellow butterflies

  1. Thanks you have just answered a question I had when I was watching small and large cabbage whites – I wanted to know if they were different species or just different sizes.
    Jackie

    Like

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