Vanessids (Family Nymphalidae)
Descriptions & images of the 7 Vanessid species resident in Hampshire
The Vanessids include several of our most colourful and best known butterflies, including the Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Painted Lady. They are all powerful flyers, a characteristic which has facilitated migrations to this country from warmer climates. As members of family Nymphalidae, they have only two pairs of walking legs, the front pair having evolved to become disfunctional brush-like appendages held below the head.
Of the species shown here, the White Admiral is listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) as a priority species for conservation.
Comma - Polygonia c-album
The Comma is a very distinctive butterfly in view of its scalloped wingshape, rich orange-brown colour and curious 'comma' marking on its underside wing. The unusual wingshape and dark underside colouring allows it to resemble a dead leaf when its wings are closed - the perfect camouflage for hibernating adults. The comma is essentially a butterfly of open woodlands, where stinging nettles provide the main foodplant for its larvae and flowers such as thistles, knapweed and hemp agrimony provide nectar sources for the adults. In the autumn they will often be found feeding on ripe fruit and berries. The Comma's love of flowering shrubs such as buddleia means it is also a frequent garden visitor. The main summer generation also includes a form hutchinsoni with lighter colouration and more variagated undersides.
When to see: March/April for the adults which have emerged from hibernation to seek a mate. July and early August for the main summer brood, consisting of both normal and hutchinsoni forms. The late summer generation of Comma butterflies, emerge in late August/September before hibernation in October.
Where to see: A century ago this species was uncommon in Britain but has staged a remarkable change in fortunes. It is widespread in Hampshire to be found in open woodland or close to woodland, as well as gardens in summer. From personal experience good sites include Whiteley Pastures and Noar Hill, but there are many others.
Painted Lady - Vanessa cardui
In the UK the Painted Lady is a regular migrant (from N Africa) and hence its numbers can vary significantly from year to year. The initial arrivals to our shores in spring will breed to produce a summer generation starting to emerge in late July. The butterflies favour open areas such as hillsides, chalk downland, lanes, fields or waste ground and gardens where there is plentiful supply of nectar such as thistles or clover. Thistles are also the main larval foodplant.
When to see: Late July and August is normally the best period to observe this migratory species, however as indicated above numbers can vary significantly from year to year.
Where to see: In good years they are frequent visitors to gardens managed to encourage butterflies, with buddleia being a favourite. Chalk downland sites where the species can normally be found include Old Winchester Hill and Stockbridge Down. Noar Hill is also usually a good site.
Peacock - Inachis io
The Peacock is a familiar and unmistakable species, with its 'peacock' eyes and rich reddish brown colouring. In contrast the underside is almost black providing good camouflage when the wings are closed. The butterflies can be found almost anywhere but perhaps most frequently in open woodlands and adorning gardens and where there are plentiful nectar sources such as thistles, knapweed, hemp agrimony, clover and flowering garden shrubs. The gregarious larva feed on stinging nettles. Incidentally the 'eyes' are believed to be a defence mechanism to warn off predators (by flashing the wings open momentarily, sometimes accompanied by a hissing noise made by rubbing the fore and back wings together). The eyes serve a secondary function to divert a predatory attack from the more vulnerable body.
When to see: The summer generation of butterflies emerge in late July/August and hibernate in early September. They are one of the first butterflies to emerge from hibernation in spring and can often be seen as early as March, through until late May.
Where to see: Gardens with plenty of flowering shrubs such as buddleia will almost certainly attract Peacocks. Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure) and Noar Hill are good sites but there will be many others.
Purple Emperor - Apatura iris
The Purple Emperor is the largest species of butterfly resident in Hampshire (the largest UK species is the Swallowtail which is only found in the fenlands of East Anglia). It can be found in the larger woodlands of the county but is an elusive butterfly to observe, partly because it is uncommon, but also because the adults spend much of their time high in the tree canopy. The males select a so called 'master tree' (often a tall oak on higher ground ) where they perch to look out for passing females, but chasing off other males after an 'aerial duel' of great acrobatic skill and speed. The butterflies rarely feed on flowers but sometimes come to the ground to feed from puddles, carcasses, rotting fruit or animal droppings. The females, which are slightly larger but lack the purple sheen, lay their eggs on sallow, which is the main larval foodplant.
When to see: The Purple Emperor has only one generation each year. The adults emerge in late June/early July and the season lasts little more than a month. The first half of July is probably the best time to plan a visit when numbers are likely to be greatest.
Where to see: The Purple Emperor is present in several of Hampshire's larger woodlands and forests including Alice Holt Forest, Bentley Wood (on the Hants/Wilts border), Whiteley Pastures/Botley Wood, and the woodlands of Farley Mount Country Park, but surprisingly there are few records from the New Forest. Whilst the butterfly may be present, some woods are much better than others for observation, and probably the best places in Hampshire to observe the species are Alice Holt Forest (particularly Straits, Goose Green and Abbotts Wood Inclosures) and Bentley Wood, particularly around the Tytherley car park and the track heading west called the switchback, as far as the first cross tracks.
Red Admiral - Vanessa atlanta
The Red Admiral's familiarity as a frequent garden visitor and striking appearance, with bright scarlet bands against a black background, make it one of our best known species. The
When to see: As indicated it is possible to see a Red Admiral on virtually any day of the year but late summer (August/September) is when they are at their peak.
Where to see: Gardens with flowering shrubs, but any flower rich environment, including woodland and downland, will usually produce a few of these handsome butterflies.
Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae
The Small Tortoiseshell used to be one of our most familiar and colourful butterflies, being found almost anywhere, from woodland, commons, lanes and waste ground to, of course, gardens. Over the last few years however, in south and south east England it has declined significantly, for reasons which are not well understood and is currently quite scarce in Hampshire. Small Tortoiseshell numbers have always tended to be variable due to the vulnerability of the larvae, which feed on stinging nettles, to parasitic attack. There are signs that the recent steep decline has been halted and numbers once again are increasing.
When to see: The main summer brood is on the wing from late June until early August with a further generation in September. The butterflies hibernate through the winter, the brown underside providing good camouflage. The butterflies re-appear in April post hibernation to seek a mate.
Where to see: In principle the butterflies can be found in their main haunts as indicated above, but during the current decline, sightings have tended to be from downland sites such as Old Winchester Hill and Magdalen Hill Down.
White Admiral - Limenitis camilla
The flight of the White Admiral is a joy to watch as it gracefully makes its way along woodland glades, intricately weaving its way through the overhanging boughs or dropping to lower levels to feed on its favourite flowers of bramble. It is a true woodland species, but is selective in the woods it chooses to inhabit, with the right mixture of sun and shade together with plentiful wild honeysuckle, which is the larval foodplant. The butterfly's liking for brambles results in the wings soon becoming damaged or torn.
When to see: There is one main generation per year, the adults normally start to appear from mid-June with the season lasting typically until late July. In view of the rapid deterioration in their condition, early July is usually the best time to plan a visit to see this species. In recent years it has not been unusual for a few second generation butterflies to be reported in late September from a few sites (global warming!).
Where to see: The White Admiral is present a several of Hampshire's woodlands - Whiteley Pastures, Pamber Forest, Bentley Wood and Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure) are good sites. Its population in the New Forest seems to be recovering well after several poor years - Pondhead and Wootton Coppice inclosures are good places to look for it there. A count in double figures during any woodland visit would be considered a very good outcome.