With warm weather forecast for much of the country this weekend, there should be a surge of butterfly sightings in gardens, bringing welcome elegance and grace. But which species is which?

Of course, one of the main ways to identify butterflies is by how they look, but there are three more essential clues that help narrow down possibilities:

  • Range: Some butterflies are only found in a limited geographical area. For example, the Brimstone is almost entirely absent north of Yorkshire.
  • Habitat: Some butterflies are restricted to particular types of place, such as limestone grasslands or ancient woodlands.
  • Date: This is a critical factor - all butterflies have very predictable flight periods during the year.

So, there are really only about six species to look for in gardens at the start of the month, if you are in the right area of the country.

The first five all survive the winter as adults, so all it takes is some air warmth to stir them wherever they are hiding, maybe from dense Ivy or a shed. Because they have been adults since last autumn, they can look a little tatty. What is astonishing is that they have stored enough energy during their winter slumber to rarely seem to need to stock up on nectar - it is all about finding a mate. However, as spring progresses, they may resort to a little liquid refreshment at choice flowers such as May blossom.

Comma. Our only butterfly with ultra jaggedy wing edges. Fond of basking on bare ground or tree stumps, orienting themselves to soak up the sun. Found throughout England and Wales; expanding into southern Scotland; largely absent from Northern Ireland.

Small Tortoiseshell. Found everywhere, but increasingly scarce. Look for the 'tiger stripes' along the front of the forewing and blue dots around the rear edge of the wing.

Peacock. Large, reddish rather than orange, and with four large eyespots, looking like those on the tail of its namesake bird. Fond of basking on bare ground. Found everywhere except the very, very far north.

Red Admiral. Black, red and white, the red forming a big  'U' across the open wings. Found everywhere.

Brimstone. The males wander tirelessly from garden to garden, a flash of acid yellow. The pale cream females are much less conspicuous, hiding in thick grass and vegetation. You will never see this butterfly perched with its wings open.

Small White. Typically the first butterfly of the season that emerges from a chrysalis (unlike thoe above that hibernate as an adult). Like the Brimstone, most likely to be seen in flight, males wandering in search of females, which makes telling them apart from the other two white species (below) difficult. If seen perched, as here on Dame's Violet, look for the small, pale-grey wing tips - they are larger on the other two species. The largely unmarked under hindwing should separate it from the Green-veined White.

Then, as April progresses, we can expect to see the following five species begin to emerge:

Holly Blue. Flits energetically high around Holly bushes and Ivy. If seen at rest, the underside is silvery sky blue dotted with a faint inksplatter of black. It only occasionally nectars, here on Green Alkanet.

Orange-tip. Males look just as their name suggests. Females lack the orange tip, but in both sexes the underside of the rear wing is dappled green as if with lichen. It will focus its attention wherever there are the foodplants for its caterpillars - Cuckooflower (Lady's-smock) and Garlic Mustard (Jack-by-the-Hedge) (as in the photo below) - it is well worth planting either or preferably both in your garden.

Speckled Wood. Found throughout southern and central England, all of Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Great Glen in Scotland. Loves dappled glades.

Large White. Found everywhere. Large, with thick black forewing tips above. Males have no central black spot on the upper forwing.

Green-veined White. Found everywhere except Shetland. In spring, the green-edged veins on the undersides are particularly well marked.

All should be on the wing through to the end of May, so see how many you can see in your garden this spring.

Anonymous