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June butterflies and insects

Other June pages: Meadow and field flowersWayside flowers Downland and seaside flowersHedgerow, trees and berriesBirdsWeather

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

Butterfly numbers can be quite low in the first half of June, with the overwintering species now largely gone, and the summer ones not starting to appear until late in the month.

Survivors from overwintering species that you may see in the first half of the month include the occasional peacock, probably looking rather tatty as it comes to the end of its life. Brimstones last a bit longer and may occasionally be seen quite late in the month. Look closely at any yellow butterfly you see, however, because it is just possible that it is a migrant clouded yellow: these in theory arrive in the UK towards the end of May and lay eggs, but are more normally seen in the summer. Most years they are not very numerous but sometimes there is a large incursion due to conditions on the continent.

There may also be a few white butterflies, but their population is at the lowest level it gets to in the whole spring and summer. The popular term for these butterflies is 'cabbage whites', but in fact there are three common species - large, small and green-veined - and it is almost impossible to tell them apart until them come to rest. Frustratingly they rarely do this and then usually just for a few seconds.

If you do see them at rest, the green-veined has a distinctive underwing which looks just as its name suggests. Both it and the small white have grey tips to their upperwings, but on the small white they are smaller, while on the green-veined they extend down the edge of the wing in a series of blobs. On the large white the tips also extend down the edge of the wing, but are black. 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 or none.

Another over-wintering butterfly, the small tortoiseshell, is absent at the start of the month but a second generation appears towards the its end (in 2017 this happened earlier, in the first three weeks of June). They have an endearing habit of basking in the sun on tracks and footpaths so if you keep your eyes peeled they can be quite easy to see, though in 2016 and 2017 numbers were worryingly small. They lay their eggs on nettles.

Look carefully at any small tortoiseshells you see, however, because at a casual glance they look quite similar to the painted lady. This lovely migrant comes all the way from Morocco, with the first wave arriving in May and breeding. The ones you see in June are probably survivors from this but later in the month may be new summer arrivals. How many of these come depends on conditions further south: in some years - eg 2009 - there are huge numbers and in others relatively few. Peak time for this butterfly is late July and August, and the south coast is a particularly good place to see them.

Another migrant you may see is the red admiral, one of the most widely recognised butterflies, which can often be seen flitting around flowering bramble bushes. As with the painted lady, the ones you see in June are probably part of the first wave of females who arrive already mated and ready to lay eggs from May onwards. But later in the month you may see new arrivals, which top up numbers over the summer months. These will include males who, like several other butterfly species, will patrol a territory: so if you are trying to photograph one and see one fly off, it is worth waiting a few minutes to see if it comes back.

The first real sign that the summer butterflies are starting, however, is the appearance of the meadow brown, the most common summer butterfly of all, which feeds on grasses but can also be found flitting around hedgerows. They can be seen from mid June (occasionally a bit earlier) and in the second half of the month seem to be absolutely everywhere. The males of this species have brown upperwings with just a hint of orange, some appearing almost completely brown, while the females have more orange colour.

In flight they are easy to confuse with the ringlet and it can be frustrating waiting for an individual to land in order to make the identification definite. Ringlets also appear from mid June onwards and are most often seen in grassland near wood edges or bramble hedges. They are chocolate brown, slightly smaller than the meadow brown, with tiny rings on their upper and lower wings. But on the males these rings are fainter and can be absent altogether. Since the orange patches on the male meadow brown can also be quite faint, and the eye in the top corner of its upperwings soon becomes faded, even at rest it is not always possible to be sure which of the two species you are looking at. Their underwings are quite distinctive, however, the ringlet being brown with tiny rings and the meadow brown being a mix of brown and orange.

A butterfly which has a very similar underwing pattern to the meadow brown is the small heath. But these are very tiny butterflies, always found close to the ground in grassland. They have orange upperwings, which are visible when they are in flight, but they always rest with their wings closed. They are found throughout June, which is one of the peak months for them.

Don't automatically assume that a tiny orange butterfly in flight is a small heath, however, because another possibility is a large, small or essex skipper, which also have orange upperwings. Appearing in the second half of June (the large a bit earlier than the other two), these can be found in both grassland and on nearby bramble flowers, and have a whirring, moth-like flight and a very moth-like way of folding their wings.

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. It can be found right from the start of June, but is more abundant at its end.

Another tiny and rather elusive butterfly of hedgerows, flowery hillsides and woodland rides is the small copper which has bright orangey red upper wing markings if you can get a close look at them. In theory these are seen more in the first half of June but they have a habit of turning up when you least expect them, so you may see them in the second half too.

In shady places the most common butterfly is the speckled wood, which can be seen throughout the month. However, if you are lucky towards the end of the month you may see more elusive woodland species. One is the silver-washed fritillary - a large orange butterfly with black streaks which glides gracefully through glades in certain woodlands (try Bookham Common near Leatherhead) and also favours bramble flowers as a food plant. The males fly back and forward over the females, who are a more dowdy browny-orange and lack the wing streaks.

An even more elusive woodland species (again try Bookham Common) is the white admiral, which comes out of the shade to feed briefly on bramble and then disappears back in again. It usually appears around mid June. It is black and white, but has a wonderfully colourful underwing, if you get the chance to see it. More elusive still in woodland is the purple emperor, one of our most showy butterflies but one which lives almost entirely in tree tops. In mid to late June it can sometimes be found on the ground gathering salts from paths or dog poo. If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one, it has purple upperwing colourings.

The same is true of another treetop specialist, the purple hairstreak. This is a relatively common butterfly that starts to appear in late June, but since it spends its time around the tops of oak trees it is rarely seen. It may sometimes descend to lower perches, however (I have seen one resting on a hazel bush). The underside of its wings is grey, with one orange eye spot. Lastly in certain isolated pockets (one being East Devon) you may find the wood white, notably smaller than the commoner white species and with a rather feeble flight.

When looking out for silver-washed fritillaries make sure you are not seeing the comma butterfly, which has similar markings but distinctive crinkly edges to its wings which make them look just like a dead leaf when closed (though in hotter summers a variation is produced which makes the underwing more orange). This is another over-wintering butterfly whose second generation can just be starting to appear at the very end of the month and whose favoured habitat is hedgerows and scrub. Like the red admiral it has a tendency to patrol a territory and so will often return to the same leaf it was on when you disturbed it.

As well as hedgerows, downland is a great habitat to see butterflies in late June - perhaps even the best. It is very popular with meadow brown butterflies and as the month comes to a close you also see marbled whites there, sometimes in large numbers (try the slope of Boxhill above Burford Bridge). This beautiful black and white butterfly particularly likes knapweed and scabious flowers and can flock around them. Females (which have a browner lower underwing) take up position on a favoured flower and the males come to pay court. Much fluttering of wings decides if mating takes place.

Downland is also a good place to see the tiny common blue (which is indeed the commonest of the blue species), though it can also be seen on other kinds of grassland. Its population is higher in the start of the month than at the end, when a changeover of generations is taking place. The very much rarer adonis blue is also a possibility, particularly early in the month. It is distinguishable from the common blue mainly by tiny lines crossing the white border to its wings, and from its darker brown underwing. It is specific to south-facing chalk downland with horseshoe vetch on it (try the southern slopes of Ranmore Common, near Dorking), but if you see a tiny blue butterfly on birdsfoot trefoil in such places, it is probably a common blue, since this is one of their favourite food plants.

The female of both these species is brown, and with orange scallops on the edge of the upperwings. Just to make life confusing, this is also the description of the brown argus (both males and females), another grassland species found mainly earlier in June. Telling these butterflies apart is tricky. The male brown argus is smaller than a female common blue and the upperwings of the latter can sometimes be flushed with blue, while a brown argus never is. But the female brown argus is a bit larger and so almost identical in size to a female common blue. Taking a photograph so one can see the finer details is often the only way to tell them apart.

If you see a very very tiny brown butterfly in June but with a grey underside, then it could be the small blue, which peaks in population early in the month. But this is a very rare butterfly only found in a few locations (try Pewley Down near Guildford). And make sure you are not seeing a day-flying moth (see below). Similarly elusive is the tiny silver-studded blue, which is found on heather. The Surrey heathlands (try Whitmoor Common) are one of the strongholds of these butterflies in the UK, but they are very hard to spot and need careful identification: late June to August is their flight time.

Rarer, but easier to identify, is the dark green fritillary, another magnificent orange butterfly with black markings (the dark green part refers to the underside of its lower wings, which are green with silver patches), which also appears around the middle of the month. You would need to study it carefully to spot the difference between it and the silver-washed fritillary mentioned above, but fortunately it is not necessary as it lives in a quite different habitat - on downland (for example on the southern slopes of Beachy Head or on the South Downs). There it favours knapweed and thistles as a food plant, which are often the best places to see (and photograph) it.

Lastly if you see a fritillary-like butterfly with an eye in its wing corners, then it is a wall (also known as a wall brown, though they are in fact orange with dark brown markings). Not particularly common these can nevertheless sometimes be seen near the south coast - for example on the clifftops near Dover or Portland Bill.

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, and some you might confuse at a casual glance for a small butterfly.

Examples include the grass veneers, tiny white moths which snap shut to an almost invisible line when they land on blades of downland grass. Larger and more colourful ones include the six-spot burnet, which is black with red spots, yet another insect that adores knapweed and which can be found feeding on it in large quantities. There are also five-spot burnets (one spot on the bottom end of their wings, rather than two).

In flight the burnets appear as a whirring mass of red, and so do cinnabar moths, which have similar colourings to the six spot burnet but larger patches of red. They are mainly night flying, though sometimes seen by day, laying their eggs on young ragwort plants. Here their black and orange-striped (but surprisingly well camouflaged) caterpillars are quite commonly seen.

Other day flying moths I have spotted in June include the speckled yellow, which looks very like a butterfly, and the burnet companion, brown silver-line, yellow shell, silver Y (a migrant from North Africa which can fly 800km in a single night), silver-ground carpet and lace border. Also the tiny black chimney sweeper, which favours ancient meadows with pignut in.

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

Insects

June is a month that is full of weird and wonderful insects, too many to enumerate here. Bees of all kinds are common - honeybees, worker bumble bees and solitary bees, of which there are more than 250 species in the UK. Bramble flowers are a good place to see all of these. June is also probably the best month for hoverflies, of which there are many different types, many of which have evolved to mimic the appearance of bees for protection from predators.

If you look close at other plants, all sorts of tiny wonders may be seen, such as shield bugs of various types or the aptly named swollen-thighed beetle. Towards the end of the month you may see the common red soldier beetle, known as the "hogweed bonking beetle" because it likes to mate on the flowers of that plant. Grassland is full of crane flies, grasshoppers and crickets, and on bushes you can see various types of ladybird.

June is also the month when house flies start to become irritating - flying into your house and buzzing around your kitchen. Especially at dusk, but also at other times, the air can be full of midges and swarming insects that get in one's mouth and eyes. In general there is a whole world of tiny flying creatures that we are generally barely aware of, except when they bite our arms and legs.

June is also another month when you may see dancing clouds of mayflies at dusk near a river: they live just one night, mating and dying in that time, a ritual that dates back to before the age of the dinosaurs (see May butterflies and insects for a longer description): the three long tassels of their tail and the stripes on their bodies are a good clue to identification.

Also by water you can see the amazing banded demoiselle with its double-spotted black wings which create a hypnotic effect in flight. In favoured places by streams and rivers there can be quite large concentrations of these, with the metallic blue males (the females are green tinged with bronze) jockeying for position on leaves overlooking the water.

Other damselflies can be found much further away from water (and sometimes mating on nearby bushes, a procedure that involves the male and female grasping each other by the tail, a rather painful-looking circle). The most common species here is the common blue damselfly (the male is blue, the female green: but sometimes newly emerged males can be seen that have black and beige markings), but note also the blue-tailed damselfly and the emerald damselfly (which is green). Dragonflies - some of them very large - also hunt for smaller insects near ponds and further afield.

Early in the month cuckoo spit - actually a foam produced by the froghopper insect - is common on plants.

More June pages:


© Peter Conway 2006-2017 • All Rights Reserved

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