Identifying butterflies – what’s in a name?

16 April 2013

When I first started becoming interested in butterflies, I naively expected their names to help me with identifying them. I soon realised I was wrong! The 60 butterfly species which live in the UK or regularly visit us are divided into families, within each of which the butterflies have some similar features, but they are not totally consistent where colour is concerned.

The Whites, for example, include the Brimstone, the male of which is bright yellow. But don’t expect to find the Marbled White in this family – it’s a Brown! The Orange Tip is also a White, which is just about acceptable in my book: the male has orange tips to his wings and both male and female have very mottled under-wings, but white is just about in the majority.

The Blues are the next challenge. Most of the male Blues are blue – except the male Brown Argus which is Brown (with orange marks); the Small Blue is also brown, though more of a smoky grey/brown. Very few of the female Blues are blue – they are mainly brown, with the exception of the Holly Blue which is blue. (Are you getting the hang of this?)

The photos below are not by me, or in my garden – these are less common species, which have to be sought out in the right place and at the right time to see them.

Left: Brown Argus (Photo Ken Dolbear). Right: Small Blue (Photo Mark Pike).

Left: Brown Argus (Photo Ken Dolbear). Right: Small Blue (Photo Mark Pike).

The Browns aren’t bad – they are mostly various shades of brown, with the exception of the black and white Marbled White mentioned above.

Some of the individual butterfly names are also a bit misleading. The  Black Hairstreak and the White-letter Hairstreak are – guess what? Not black or white, but mainly brown. The Brown Hairstreak, however, to my eye, is closer to orange. Top marks to the Green Hairstreak, though, which is a lovely shade of green and quite unmistakeable.

Left: Black Hairsteak. Right: White-letter Hairstreak. Photos by Mark Pike.

Left: Black Hairsteak. Right: White-letter Hairstreak. Photos by Mark Pike.

Left: Green Hairstreak; photo Ken Dolbear. Right: Brown Hairsteak; photo Mark Pike

My sympathy vote goes to the Dingy Skipper, which is a bit – er, dingy, but it still seems mean to call it that. Perhaps I’ll start the Dingy Skipper Appreciation Society to cheer it up.

The names don’t really matter – butterflies are gorgeous and magnificent insects. Happy butterfly spotting!

Dingy Skippers mating. Photo: Christine Brown

Dingy Skippers mating. Photo: Christine Brown

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