Nymphalidae 1, 2

Nymphalidae. 5000 species world wide, 14 species in U. K. In the adults the first pair of legs is not used for walking. All in the family are strikingly marked. Wingspan ranges from 36 - 78 mm. Many have a characteristic flight pattern of long, low loops over a straight line.

Species featured on this page

Latin name Common name Family
Boloria euphrosyne Pearl-bordered fritillary Nymphalidae
Argynnis aglaja Dark green fritillary Nymphalidae
Danaus plexippus Monarch Nymphalidae
Limenitis archippus Viceroy Nymphalidae
Cynthia cardui Painted lady, Cosmopolite Nymphalidae
Vanessa atalanta Red admiral Nymphalidae

Red admiral Vanessa atalanta

The Red admiral on the right can be found in gardens, the countryside and even in cities, especially on ripe and rotting fruit in late summer and autumn. They are common in Europe, North America and the temperate regions of Asia.

In the U. K. the adults arrive each spring from southern Europe and lay their eggs singly on stinging nettle. In June the caterpillars hatch and feed inside a leafy tent held together with silk. A fully grown caterpillar is around 35 mm long.

The caterpillars pupate in July and August inside a leaf shelter and emerge in around 2 weeks. Some then fly south, others hibernate or die. Adult males and females are similar.

The adult on the top right landed on my jeans while I was walking my dog down a country lane. The one below and many others feasted themselves on my bumper crop of plums. While feeding they close their wings showing only the underside, which, like many of the other Nymphalids, is well camouflaged.

Red admiral Vanessa atalantaRed admiral Vanessa atalanta
Boloria euphrosyne, peral-bordered fritillary

Boloria euphrosyne, the pearl-bordered fritillary

On the left is the pearl-bordered fritillary, in the Nymphalidae family. The caterpillar hatches in May or June, feeds on violas, and hibernates in a dead leaf in July. When fully grown is up to 25 mm long. It has a black body with a row of white spots along each side. The spines on its back can be black, yellow or white. The head is black. It pupates the following May.

Adult wingspan is 38 - 46 mm, and it flies in May and June. The female is larger than the male, and often paler. There is usually one generation per year in Northern Europe and two in Central and Southern Europe. It is found in woodland clearings and edges. Formerly it was widespread in the UK, but is now uncommon.

Argynnis aglaja, the dark green fritillary

On the right is the dark green fritillary, Nymphalidae. It is found in moorlands, cliffs, sand dunes and open woods throughout Europe. There is one generation a year.

Eggs are yellowish laid singly on the stems of dog violet, and hatch in 2 - 3 weeks.

The caterpillar eats it egg shell then hibernates at the base of the plant. It emerges next spring and feeds until June or July. When not feeding it hides beneath the plant. The caterpillar is velvet-black with hairy spines, a yellow stripe along its back and red spots down both sides. When fully grown the caterpillar can reach 38 mm long.

The chrysalis is shiny black and brown and enclosed in a tent of leaves held together with silk.

The adult flies from June to August. It has a rapid and powerful flight. The adult wingspan is 48 - 60 mm, the females are usually larger than the males and paler in colour.

Argynnis aglaja, Dark green fritillary butterfly, adlut
Danaus plexippus, monarch butterfly

Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly

The eggs (below) are pale green and conical, and hatch 3 - 5 days after being laid on milkweeds which are the food plant of the caterpillar.

The caterpillars feed on the milkweeds storing the poisons (cardiac glycosides) from the plant to make themselves unpalatable to predators. The cardiac glycosides, even in small doses in vertebrates, induce nausea and vomiting; and in larger doses, death.

The adult above is a preserved specimen. The adults also have the typical warning colouration of orange/black, as the poisons are still stored in their bodies. These poisons induce rapid vomiting, so that the predator can easily associate the unpleasant experience with the caterpillar/butterfly, and avoid them in future. It overwinters as an adult in thick woods - often on Eucalyptus trees. Its flight speed has been recorded as 2.8 metres per second. Compare this with other insects.

Monarch migration

This butterfly is famous for its long-distance migrations, e.g. from Canada to Mexico. The round trip can take 4 generations.

It is found in North and South America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, and some even stray as far as western Europe including the UK.

The Monarch butterfly is important in eco-tourism in the 2 areas where it overwinters; the Monterey Peninsula in California, and the conifer forests of Michoacan in central Mexico. In these 2 areas there are guided tours to see the butterflies in their dense aggregations. Apart from the tours themselves the tourists must find accommodation, be fed, and often buy souvenirs. All this brings income and jobs into the area that might not otherwise exist were it not for the butterflies.

Monarch butterfly egg

Limenitis archippus, viceroy butterfly

Limenitis archippus, Nymphalidae, the viceroy butterfly

The Viceroy on the left, ranges from Canada and Eastern US to North Mexico. It prefers shrubby areas near water. It mates in the afternoon and the female deposits her eggs singly, each on an undamaged leaf of willow or poplar, on which the caterpillars feed. The caterpillars sequester the salicylic acid from the leaves in their bodies, so that when a predator eats a caterpillar, the caterpillar has a bitter taste, and causes the predator an upset stomach making it avoid eating other viceroys. There can be three generations in a year.

Danaus plixippus (above), Limenitis archippus, the viceroy butterfly, and a few other similar-looking butterflies are are often used as examples of Mullerian mimicry. All of the butterflies in the mimicry ring are distasteful and have similar warning colouration. This benefits not only members of the same species, but also members of other species in the mimicry ring, as the predator will need to try only on individual of any of the species to avoid all butterflies in the mimicry ring. Another member of this group is Danaus gilippus, the queen butterfly.

Painted lady, Cosmopolite, Cynthia cardui

The Painted lady, known in North America as Cosmopolite has a widespread distribution. The eggs are laid singly on the upper surface of the leaves of the food plants - thistles, mallows and nettles - in June and August, and hatch after about a week. The caterpillar spins leaves together to make a shelter to feed in, and reaches full size of around 28 mm long in a month. Pupation takes place inside the leaf shelter, and the adult butterfly emerges around 2 weeks later. Adults cannot survive the British winter.

Painted lady, Cynthia cardui, adult
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