Butterflies in the Nymphalidae family 1, 2

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Species featured on this page

Latin name Common name Family
Inachis io Peacock Nymphalidae
Poligonia c-album Comma Nymphalidae
Aglais urticae Small tortoiseshell Nymphalidae

Nymphalidae overview

5000 species world wide, 14 species in U.K. Some books now include the Satyridae family within the Nympalidae. This family includes the Admirals, Emperors, Fritillaries, Tortoiseshells, Peacock, and Commas. In the adults the first pair of legs is not used for walking, and the caterpillars are usually spiny. All U. K. Nymphalidae pupate by hanging head downwards. All in the family are strikingly marked and colourful. Wingspan ranges from 36 - 78 mm. Many have a characteristic flight pattern of long, low loops over a straight line.

Polygonia c-album - common name -the comma

On the right is the comma, the name comes from the white comma mark on the underside of its rear wing. It is common in Europe, but in the U. K. is found mainly in the south, in woods, lanes and gardens.

The adult wingspan is 4.4 - 4.8 cm, and the males and females are the same except that the females usually have duller undersides to their wings.

The flight is rapid with a lot of gliding. The adults fly in June/July and there is a second generation flying in August which hibernate in the autumn. When these emerge in the late spring they mate.

The irregular wing outline and the pattern of the undersides make the adult resemble a dead leaf. It is widespread throughout Europe, but confined to the southern half of the UK. The adult lives mainly in meadows but visits gardens. They hibernate as adults on exposed branches or among dead leaves.

Eggs are laid singly or in small groups on the upper surface of the leaves of the food plant in May and again in July/August.

The eggs hatch after 2 - 3 weeks and the caterpillars feed singly in small webs for approximately 6 weeks. The caterpillar is black, spiny, with orange bands and a large white patch down the rear half of its back. This white patch makes it look rather like a bird dropping, so serves as camouflage.

The larval food plants include hop and nettle. The caterpillars can reach a length of 3.5 cm. Then they pupate suspended from the food plant. Adults emerge 2 - 3 weeks later.

Polygonia c-album, comma butterfly in the  Nymphalidae family.  Adult on a flower

Inachis io, the peacock

The peacock, below and right, is in the Nymphalidae family. The olive-green eggs are laid on the underside of the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the food plant, in batches of 100 or more in May, and hatch about two weeks later.

The caterpillars (see above) live together in a communal web until their final moult. They are black with small white dots and have long black spines on their back and sides. The final body length can reach 4.2 cm. It takes about one month from egg hatch to final moult.

They pupate separately suspended from plant stems. Normally the caterpillar wanders off just before pupation, and can climb quite high up, so the plant it pupates on may not be the foodplant.

Inachis io larva, Peackock butterfly caterpillar
close up of scales on a male peacock (Inachis io) butterfly's wing

The adults (left and below) emerge after around two weeks and feed. The adult males and females are alike, but the female is usually larger, the wingspan is 5.6 - 6.0 cm.

Adult males have their front legs reduced to brushes (see the photograph below).

The peacock hibernates as an adult, and has dark and dingy undersides to its wings (see right) camouflaging it as it hides in dark corners, often indoors in sheds and other cool buildings. If disturbed during hibernation it will flash its wings to reveal the eyespots, and make a rustling noise to frighten off predators.

The flight is fast and gliding. It emerges from hibernation in early spring and mates. Note the white tips to the antennae.

Inachis io, peacock butterfly adult on a flower

Inachis io, peacock butterfly adult on a flower

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Inachis io, peacock buterfly male adult showing the coiled proboscis (tongue)

Aglais urticae, the small tortoiseshell

On the right is the small tortoiseshell, another member of the Nymphalidae. The adults are fairly common from March - May and July - October, and have a wingspan of 45 - 60 mm. They have a fast flight. They hibernate over winter; often in sheds and other cool buildings.

The eggs are laid in May and August on stinging nettle in batches of 100 or more.

The caterpillar grows up to 40 mm long, is black/brown and feeds in groups in silk webs on Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle from July to September, and pupates on the stems, or on twigs and fences hanging upside down.

Tips on creating a butterfly garden - no matter how small the patch.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly, adult, Aglais urticae adult
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