Butterflies in the Nymphalidae family 1, 2, 3, 4, Morpho

Nymphalidae overview

There are around 5000 species of Nymphalidae world wide, and 14 species in U. K. Some books now include the Satyridae family within the Nymphalidae. The Nymphalidae includes the Admirals, Emperors, Fritillaries, Tortoiseshells, Peacock, Morphos, 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 of U. K. species ranges from 36 - 78 mm, and world wide fore wing lengths run from 10 - 75 mm. Many have a characteristic flight pattern of long, low loops over a straight line.

Polygonia c-album, Comma

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

Above is the Comma, Polygonia c-album the common 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, flowery meadows and gardens. It ranges from North Africa across Europe to China and Japan.

The adult wingspan is 44 -64 mm, forewing is 22 - 24 mm, 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. 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.

Inachis io, the peacock

Inachis io larva, Peackock butterfly caterpillar

The Peacock, Inachis io, above and below, is in the Nymphalidae family. It ranges from Western Europe through Asia to Japan, and can be found on flowery banks, gardens etc. from sea level to 1800m. 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.

Inachis io, peacock butterfly adult on a flower

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.

Peacock underwing

The adults (above 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 56 - 75 mm, fore wing 27 - 29 mm.

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

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

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

The peacock hibernates as an adult, and has dark and dingy undersides to its wings (see above) 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.

Aglais urticae, the Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell adult

Above 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, forewing 22 - 25 mm. They have a fast flight, and are found in flowery places from sea level up to 2100 m in Western Europe and the Atlantic islands. 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.

Salamis parhassus, Mother-of-pearl

Salamis parhassus, Mother-of-pearl butterfly adult

Salamis Parhassus, above, Is also known as Protogonimorpha parhassus. It is found in African forests. The wingspan for males is 60 - 80 mm, and for females 75 - 100 mm. Both males and females have similar colouring and patterns. The colour of the wing changes according to the angle of light, and can be pink, purple, yellow, green or white. They fly throughout the year, with the males tending to fly higher than the females who fly and perch closer to the ground. At night they rest under leaves.

Pyronis tithonus, the Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper, Pyronis tithonus

Above is the Gatekeeper, Pyronis tithonus, also known as the Hedge brown. It is found in woodlands, clearings and woodland edges usually near bramble in Southern England, Ireland and Wales, scarce in the north, and absent from Scotland. Worldwide it ranges from Spain, Western Europe across to Asia Minor and the Caucasus, from sea level up to 900 m.

There is one generation a year. The pale yellow eggs are laid singly on the grass foodplant in July and August, and hatch in around three weeks. The caterpillars feed at night until October and hibernate over winter low down among the grass. During the day the caterpillar hides at the base of the foodplant. It feeds again in June. The caterpillar grows up to 23 mm long. It pupates in June in a pale brown/yellow pupa with dark brown spots and streaks suspended from grass. Adults emerge after about three weeks. Adults fly in July and August, and favour bramble flowers. Wingspan is 34 - 40 mm, forewing 17 - 19 mm.

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

Large tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros

Large tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros

The Large tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros, above, now considered extinct in the U. K., pre WWII it was found in S. E. England. There are occasional sightings today, but these are probably from migrants. It is found in Europe and as far east as the Himalayas. It is found in woodland clearings and edges.

The eggs are laid in batches around twigs in April, and hatch three weeks later. At first the caterpillars live in a protective web. They live in groups high up in elms, and sometimes willows and poplars, birch cherry and pear, and can grow up to 45 mm long. They pupate in June suspended from the foodplant. They hibernate as an adult. Mating takes place the following spring. Wingspan is 50 - 63 mm, forewing 25 - 32 mm. The adult flies in June and July.

Related pages