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July butterflies and insects

Other July pages: Downland and seaside flowers Wayside flowers Hedgerow, fruit and berriesBirdsWeather

Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more July butterfly, moth and insect photos. For more information on butterflies and moths see the Butterfly Conservation website.

Butterflies abound in July - on downland, grassland, path verges, and even in woodland. In all, this is probably the best month in the year for spotting and identifying these beautiful creatures - so long as the weather is fine: with a few exceptions (for example the meadow brown) butterflies prefer to fly in warm sunny weather, and wet summers can seriously reduce populations. Good places to see them depend on species and habitat, but knapweed and marjoram are popular places for them to feed, as is bramble if it is still in flower.

The most common varieties are the almost ubiquitous white butterflies that are colloquially known cabbage whites, but in fact this term covers three distinct species - the large white, small white and green-veined white, all of which are evident in July, their populations increasing through the month as a new generation emerges.

Telling the three species apart is not easy as these are very energetic butterflies that never seem to sit still for long. But the green-veined has a distinctive underwing which looks just as its name suggests, while the small white has smaller and paler black tips to its upperwings. On the large white the black markings extend across the bottom edge of the upperwing, which is also true of the green-veined white, but in its case the markings get a bit more serrated as they extend along the wing edge. The green-veined also has slightly more prominent veins on its upperwings. In both the large and small white the females have two black spots on their upperwings, while the male has only one.

Another very common butterfly in July is the meadow brown, which is found both in grassland and around hedgerows. It looks as brown as you might expect in flight, but when at rest it reveals a dash of orange on its upperwings (a bit more on the female than on the male) and a large black eye on each wing.

The meadow brown may also be confused in flight with the ringlet, which is a darker, chocolate brown with circular markings. It is also found in grassland, but mainly near to hedgerows or field borders, and mainly in the first half of the month, though sometimes later. It is less common than the meadow brown but despite this quite abundant in some years.

In theory once at rest the rings around the border of its upper hindwing should identify the ringlet easily, but in practice the upperwing markings on both meadow browns and ringlets fade as they get older, and the rings on male ringlets are fainter on the male than on the female anyway, so both can end up with upperwings of a dull brown colour. Their different underwings - brown with rings on the ringlet, two shades of brown on the hindwing and orange with a eye on the upperwing for the meadow brown - distinguish the two species absolutely, however.

Looking similar to the meadow brown, but with more orange on its upperwings is the gatekeeper, which appears in the second week of July and is at its height at the end of the month. Its favoured habitat is hedgerows and it is particularly fond of bramble, if any is left in flower. When at rest with its wings closed it is easy to confuse with the meadow brown, as both species have an orange upper forewing with an eye, and a brown upper hindwing. The way to distinguish them is through the markings on this hindwing. In both species there is a lighter band towards the outer edge of the lower part, but on the gatekeeper it is thinner and a bit more meandering, and there is also another lighter patch near the top. The gatekeeper is also slightly smaller.

Also to be found on hedgerows in July is the colourful red admiral, a migrant to our shores, though at this time of year second generations are appearing, grown from eggs laid by the first arrivals in May. These are then joined by further migrants in July. The males tend to patrol a territory and so if you disturb one, it is worth waiting a few minutes to see if it comes back.

Other offspring of spring butterflies are the small tortoiseshells and the peacocks you see in July. They like hedgerows and all sorts of other habitats: for example, small tortoiseshells often sun themselves on paths. Both can look almost black in flight - the peacock especially so - due to their dark underwings. In theory their numbers should increase as the month goes on, but there have been recent years (for example 2016) when they were remarkably scarce. There is particular concern about the small tortoiseshell which has had several bad years for reasons which have not yet been identified.

Similar in some ways to the small tortoiseshell, but more colourful, is the painted lady, a migrant that comes in great abundance in some years (2009 was a famously good year) but only in small quantities in others. As with the red admiral, they first arrive in May or June, and as July goes on a second generation appears, the offspring of these first arrivals, along with further migrants from the continent. Near the south coast seems to be a good place to spot them but they can be found inland as well.

Another migrant that comes over in small numbers is the clouded yellow, which has a habit of flying swiftly past without stopping. It can be identified in flight by its combination of orange upperwings and yellow underwings. They can in theory be seen in July but August seems to be a better time to spot them. If you see a large pure yellow butterfly towards the end of the month, then it is almost certainly a brimstone, the second generation of which start to appear towards the end of July and then hibernate to emerge and breed early in spring. These are another butterfly species that always seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

If you see a flash of pure orange swooping across the hedgerow, the chances are that it is a comma butterfly. These lovely creatures with their jagged edged wings look just like a dead leaf when their wings are closed (though in hotter summers a variant is produced which has more orange underwings), but at this time of year they often seem to be displaying on hedgerows with their wings open. Like red admirals, the males patrol a particular territory, so if you see one that flies off, wait, and it will often swoop back to the same spot.

The black-on-orange markings of the comma are very similar to another striking category of butterflies - the fritillaries. Telling these apart requires detailed examination of minute differences in their wing markings, but most are rare and localised anyway. One you might see in July in woodland glades is the magnificent silver-washed fritillary, one of our largest butterflies, the male of which has distinctive streaks of black on its orange wings. (The female lacks the streaks and is browner, but is in any case much harder to spot). Bookham Common near Leatherhead is one you might see them.

Bookham Common is also a good place to spot another elusive woodland species, the white admiral, which has a rapid, purposeful flight, visits bramble flowers on woodland rides, and lays eggs on honeysuckle. They do sometimes crop up on ordinary country walks as well.

In the same place, you may be lucky enough to see the purple emperor, the UK's largest butterfly. It normally confines itself to the top of trees but can come down onto paths in the morning to gather minerals from mud or dog poo. Late June is a more likely time to see this than early July, however. Much commoner than the purple emperor, but also generally confined to the tops of oak trees and so rarely seen, is the purple hairstreak, a medium-sized butterfly with dark purple flashes in its upperwings and grey underwings: it can occasionally be found resting on lower level leaves.

Finally, if on holiday in East Devon, look out for another rarity - the wood white, which is much smaller than the cabbage whites, has a very flaccid, feeble flight, and these days is mainly confined to isolated pockets, East Devon being one.

By far the most common woodland species, however, is the speckled wood, which has brown wings with yellow spots. Unlike the others mentioned it is frequently seen in shady places throughout the south east - indeed, it probably vies with the cabbage whites and meadow browns as our most common butterfly. It also a pleasing habit of basking on sunny leaves, making it easy to see and photograph. This butterfly has overlapping generations, since it overwinters as both a pupae and an adult and so numbers are pretty consistent throughout the summer.

Perhaps the best habitat of all in which to see butterflies in July is downland, however. Abundant species include meadow browns already mentioned above, as well as ringlets on downland edges near trees or hedgerows. Perhaps the star attraction, however, is the lovely marbled white, whose black-on-white markings make it one of the easiest butterflies to identify. In the first three weeks of the month one can see them in large numbers in favoured locations (such as the slopes of Box Hill above Burford Bridge), the females (which have browner underwings) perching on knapweed or scabious flowers to await males, with much fluttering of wings deciding whether mating takes place.

Downland is also the place to see another fritillary - the dark green fritillary, which is found in the in places such as the southern slopes of Beachy Head. Despite its name, its upperwings are bright orange, getting its somewhat inaccurate name from the striking green and silver markings on its underwing. Like many butterflies it is fond of knapweed, and it is at its best in the first half of the month. If you see what looks like a fritillary with a dark eye on its wing on downland and coasts, it is a wall (sometimes known as a wall brown).

Look closely in July and you can also see small tiny orange butterflies flitting about in grassland and hedgerows. One family of these - the skippers - look more like moths than butterflies, with a whirring flight and a most un-butterfly-like habit of double stacking their upperwings when at rest. The three species seen in July are the large, small or Essex skippers, and they are all common until the third week or so. Telling them apart requires close examination, but the large skipper (which is still nevertheless very small) has a wide border on its upper wings, while the small and Essex skippers have much purer orange wings with a very thin darker border. To tell the Essex skipper from the small skipper you then have to look at the tips of their antennae, which are brown for the small and black for the Essex. In all three species the male has a darker bar across its wings while the female does not.

Other tiny butterflies you may see are the small copper, which has large orange patches with dark spots on its upperwings, and the small heath, which looks pale orange in flight, but like a tiny version of the gatekeeper or meadow brown when at rest with its wings closed. Both species are between generations in July but still occasionally seen. The small heath is only found close to the ground and never rests with its wings open, so if you see an tiny orange butterfly with its wings open it is a skipper or small copper.

Downland is also a good place to see the wonderful - but very small - blue butterflies. The most widespread of these by far is the common blue, which is also found in all sorts of other grassy habitats, but at the start of the month it is between generations, so any you see then will probably be rather tatty survivors from June. Later in the month a new generation appears.

Common blues look an intense blue in flight, but if you see a bright blue butterfly near hedgerows later in the month, and especially near ivy or bramble, it might be a holly blue, the second generation of which appears at this time. The best way to tell the two species apart is to see their underwings - beige with black spots and a blush for blue for the common blue, and pale blue for the holly blue. The holly blue also has a dark border to its upper forewing, smaller in the male but quite large and prominent in the female. Otherwise the female holly blue is much like the male, while female common blues look completely different, being chocolate brown with tiny orange markings around the wing edges.

As such the common blue female is easy to confuse with the much rarer brown argus, which has similar colourings, but is rather smaller (that is to say, very tiny indeed). Again it is found on downland and again you are more likely to see it later in the month than earlier. Its underwings can be distinguished from those of the common blue only by minute examination of the black spots (it has three that are different). The female common blue also has a bluish tint around her body on her upperwing (more rarely her whole upperwing is flushed blue) and black on white dots below the orange ones on her wing edge. The brown argus, meanwhile, has a small slightly darker spot on each upper forewing and the orange dots on its rear upper wing do not go to the edge. Just to make life extra confusing the female brown argus is bigger than the male and so a similar size to the female common blue. Often you can only be sure of the identification if you get a good clear photograph and study it later.

There is also another blue butterfly that appears on downland towards the end of July - the chalkhill blue. Not found in the UK outside the south of England, it is nevertheless fairly common in the south east, abundant in the spots its favours (try Castle Hill Reserve near Lewes or the southern slopes of Pewley Down near Guildford). The male is a noticeably lighter blue than the common blue male in flight - it can even look white in certain lights, which is a sure clue to identification as no white butterfly is so small. It is a bit larger than the common blue, though still fairly small.

Look closely at its upperwings and the male chalkhill blue has a distinctive dark border and dark veins on its wings. The common blue's upperwing, meanwhile, can seem slightly mauve on closer inspection, The female is chalkhill is another brown butterfly distressingly similar to the common blue female and brown argus, though with fainter orange wing border spots on its upper forewing, and very different mid brown colouring (with black and orange spots) on its underwing. It tends to keep a low profile, however, hiding near the ground, and can usually be identified by the presence of chalkhill blue males nearby.

Day flying moths

There are nearly 2500 species of moth in the UK, but most fly at night and so need not trouble us here. But several fly by day and are easily seen in July.

Probably the most obvious are six-spot burnets, which have lurid red-on-black wings, a whirling helicopter flight, and like to feed on ragwort and knapweed. If you look closely earlier in the month you might also see the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth on ragwort. They are striped a bright orange and black, but are perfectly camouflaged on this garish plant. The moth itself - which is black with red markings and bright red hindwings - can also sometimes be seen by day.

You can also sometimes see silver Y moths, particularly on downland, and I have also identified the straw-barred pearl during the month. Notice also the numerous very tiny white moth-like insects which flit about in grass, snapping shut on landing to perfectly resemble a piece of grass or twig. These include grass veneer moths such as the garden grass veneer and the rosy-striped knot-horn.

To identify other day flying moths see the Butterfly Conservation website.


Plenty of other insects are also in evidence in July, including honeybees, bumble bees and flies, the latter flying into open windows to get trapped in your house or being attracted by the moisture in your picnic. Towards the end of the month wasps can start to become a nuisance too (see August butterflies and insects for an explanation for this), but look carefully at any wasp as there are also a wide range of perfectly harmless hoverflies which have evolved to look very like wasps to avoid predators.

When you sit down after a walk or a cycle on a hot day, there can be a column of gnats circling over your sweaty head, and you return from days out to find your legs or arms covered with tiny insect bites. You can also be beset in July with plague of flying ants - common garden ants in their mating phase.

More pleasantly, one sees dragonflies and damselflies, the latter delicate hovering sticks of irridescent blue: both are normally associated with rivers and ponds, but in fact can be found surprisingly far from water - for example on bramble bushes. One type of damselfly, the banded demoiselle, can still be found positioning itself for mating on blades of foliage overlooking rivers.

If walking past hogweed flowers look out for the common red soldier beetle, also known as the "hogweed bonking beetle" for its habit of mating on this flower. They can also be seen on other flowers such as ragwort and hedge parsley. Meanwhile grass in July is alive with grasshoppers, crane flies and all sorts of other creepy crawlies.

More July pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2016 • All Rights Reserved

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