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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 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 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. In the case of peacocks this is later in the month: for small tortoiseshells it tends to be in the first half. Both like hedgerows and all sorts of other habitats: for example, small tortoiseshells often sun themselves on paths. Traditionally common in summer, both species have become worryingly scarce in recent years - in 2017 they were almost entirely absent. The reasons for this are not clear. Both species go on to hibernate during the winter (technically "diapause", a complete cessation of metabolic activity) - so the ones you see flying around now may be the same ones you see next spring. However in good summers small tortoiseshells can produce a further generation before diapausing.

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. (In 2017 only a few were seen in May and June, but none in July or August). 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, boosted by 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 and black upperwings and yellowy-green underwings. It always rests (when it rests at all) with its wings closed. 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, later hibernating 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. These lovely creatures with their jagged edged wings look just like a dead leaf when their wings are closed, 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. As with small tortoiseshells, if the summer is wet the July commas will go straight to hibernation, emerging to breed in the spring: in good summers they produce a variant with more orangey underwings, which goes on to spawn a further generation in August or September

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 place 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. Much commoner, 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 or in the woods to the south west of Chiddingfold Surrey, 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.

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 (though once again was worryingly scarce in 2017). It has 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, its inaccurate moniker coming 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), sadly rare these days.

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 these three skippers apart takes really close examination. The large skipper (which is still very small) has darker patches on its upperwings, while the small and essex skipper are a more pure orange, though still with dark borders. These latter two species can only be told apart by the underside of the tips of their antennae, which are brown in the small skipper and black in the essex skipper. Even that does not quite do it, because some small skippers have black antenna ends with tiny brown tip: the essex skipper has lighter antennae which look as if they have been dipped in black ink at the tip.

All of this is hard to see with the naked eye and you often can only be sure which species you are looking at if you take a photograph and enlarge it. One slightly more visible difference in males is that small skippers have a slightly curved dark line on their wings (a "sex brand") while on the essex skipper it is dead straight.

Just to make life extra interesting, the hills around Lulworth in Dorset have their very own species, the Lulworth skipper. The differences in markings between this and other skippers do not matter so much as the fact that it is very very tiny, noticeably smaller even than the (already tiny) small and Essex skippers. July is a particularly good month to see this butterfly and on grassy slopes facing the sea it can be very abundant.

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 of blue at the base 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 chalk hill 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, the southern slopes of Pewley Down near Guildford, or the lower slopes of Ranmore Common near Dorking). 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 chalk hill 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 chalk hill 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 chalk hill blue males nearby.

Day flying moths

There are nearly 2500 species of moth in the UK (as opposed to just 59 different butterflies), 900 of which are of a size large enough to be noticed by the casual walker. Most of them fly at night, but there are quite a few which fly by day, or are easily disturbed from their daytime slumber by a passing walker. Some you might even confuse at a casual glance for a small butterfly.

Probably the most obvious moths 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.

Otherwise white carpet moths are quite common during July - for example the common carpet, silver-ground carpet and chalk carpet. Also white is the lovely delicate lace border. Brown moths include the mother of pearl, mother shipton and burnet companion, while the treble bar is grey.

Also grey is the silver Y, which sometimes invades in large numbers (they migrate from North Africa, catching high altitude winds and travelling up to 800km in a night) and can be seen particularly on downland, but also elsewhere. In 2017 there was a big influx (or population explosion) of Jersey tigers in the south-east.

Notice also the numerous very tiny white grass veneer moths which flit about in grass, particularly on downland, snapping shut on landing to perfectly resemble a piece of grass or twig. These include the garden grass veneer and the rosy-striped knot-horn. Another very tiny moth is the mint moth, also known as the small purple and gold moth for its purple-brown wings with yellowish patches. It likes to feed on downland herbs such as marjoram and thyme.

Look out also for plume moths, which have thin wings and look a bit like a modified crane fly. The common plume is the most likely one to see, but there is a strange and rare white plume which mainly flies at night but can sometimes be seen at dusk.

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

Insects

Plenty of other insects are also in evidence in July, including honeybees, bumble bees, solitary bees of multifarious species, and flies of many different kinds, including green blow flies on hedgerow shrubs and house flies getting trapped in your house.

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 as there are also a wide range of perfectly harmless hoverflies which have evolved to look very like wasps to avoid predators. Some of these are quite striking, such as the large pellucid and the hornet mimic hoverflies, which look quite terrifying.

Many other insects elude identification. The air can be full of tiny flying critters of one sort or another, and 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. Look also at flower heads to see the minuscule creatures that crawl over them - a whole ecosystem that largely escapes our attention. Less cheerfully, you may return from days out to find your legs or arms covered with tiny insect bites. July is also the most likely month in which to experience a plague of flying ants - common garden ants in their mating phase.

This month is also another good one for dragonflies and damselflies. Both are normally associated with rivers and ponds, but in fact can be found surprisingly far from water - for example on bramble bushes. Damselflies are delicate hovering sticks, often of iridescent blue (common blue damselfly male - the females are green) or black with a blue tip (blue-tailed damselfly). There is also a green emerald damselfly. Another very common type of damselfly - the striking blue banded demoiselle, with dark patches on its wings that make a hypnotic pattern in flight, can be found positioning itself for mating on blades of foliage overlooking rivers. Females of this species are a metallic green tinged with gold.

Dragonflies, meanwhile, hunt rapidly through the air, often flying back and forwards across a territory. Identifying them is hard as they rarely sit still and have 360 degree vision that makes it hard to creep up on them for a closer look. However, the striking southern hawker with its blue and black tail and green and black body is worth looking for, as is the green-gold common darter. The broad-bodied chaser and black-tailed skimmer are two other dragonflies with striking blue tails that may be seen.

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. Another very colourful beetle is the iridescent green rose chafer - not common, but an exciting sight.

Meanwhile grass in July is alive with grasshoppers, crane flies and all sorts of other creepy crawlies. Along with various spider species you may see the long-legged harvestman. Look down on still freshwater and you may see a gathering of pondskaters, creating tiny ripples as they vibrate their legs on the water surface.

Native ladybirds, such as the familiar seven-spot, may be emerging as adults as the month goes on (they breed in May and June): in July 2017 I also saw the tiny and elusive orange ladybird. Meanwhile the invasive harlequin ladybird is in adult form (and mating vigorously) throughout the summer.

More July pages:


© Peter Conway 2006-2017 • All Rights Reserved

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