Spring on the wing - the orange tip butterfly

© Vaughn Matthews

The orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) is present throughout Surrey and is one of our most widespread and earliest emerging butterflies.

Flying from the beginning of April, through May and into June, the name of this butterfly best describes the male, which has vivid orange tips to his wings. The female, however, is mostly white with black tips.

Both sexes have a mottled pattern of black, yellow and green scales on their underwing, only visible when they land to take nectar or to heat up in the spring sunshine. The males are often more visible than the females and are usually seen patrolling hedgerows, looking for newly emerged mates, investigating anything white – from petals to paper.

On the menu

Like many butterfly species, the orange-tip caterpillars (known as larvae) have restricted feeding habits. In this instance, they are dependent on garlic mustard, lady’s smock, hedge mustard and other members of the cabbage family. Because the larvae are cannibalistic, the females only lay one egg per flower head, and after hatching they feed on the flower seed.

In adulthood, the butterflies also feed on the nectar of these plants. There is a single brood most years, but in exceptionally early seasons, a small second brood may appear in July.

Although their numbers are stable in most parts of Britain and their northern range is expanding (probably as a result of climate change), this butterfly has undoubtedly suffered from loss of habitat due to the nationwide decline in traditional meadow management. Its refuges currently appear to be less frequently cut road verges but generally it prefers damp habitats such as meadows, woodland glades, hedgerows and the banks of streams and rivers.

Open invitation

The orange-tip will also readily visit gardens, so if you would like to encourage this butterfly, consider leaving long grassy edges that are cut every few years. You could also plant garlic mustard and lady’s smock next year.

This article was originally written by Surrey Wildlife Trust Ranger Rachael Thornley for Surrey Life magazine in April 2015 and has been edited.