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August butterflies and insects

Other August pages: Fruits, berries, nuts and treesDownland and seaside flowersWayside flowers BirdsWeather

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

The number of butterfly species starts to reduce in August, but early in the month you can still see plenty of them on sunny days in places where there are still flowers for them to feed on. As the month goes on you are only seeing ones and twos, however.

At the start of the month you may just see some marbled whites but they are definitely on the way out, while ringlets have disappeared entirely. Gatekeepers are to be found only in the first half of the month (just possibly into the third week).

Skippers (probably large, though small or Essex are possible) are also only seen in the first few days of the month, if then, but there are two very localised exceptions to this. One is the the Lulworth skipper found on the hills above that Dorset cove, best early in the month but visible till its end. The other is the silver-spotted skipper, found on some downland slopes in the south east, for which this is the best month.

Otherwise, in hedgerows a new generation of peacocks is supposed to appear in late July and early August. These are the offspring of the butterflies which appeared in March or even late February and will go on to hibernate (or, to be more accurate, diapause - a complete cessation of metabolic activity) over the winter, appearing again in early spring to breed. In recent years (2014 to 2018) there have been worryingly small numbers of these summer peacocks, however, despite 2016 and 2018 offering supposedly favourable weather. In 2018 there were records of them diapausing as early as 5 August. (If you look in the dark corners of World War II pillboxes on the North Downs you might find them doing this, but if so, please do not disturb them.)

There is a similarly worrying picture for small tortoiseshells. In the second half of the month (occasionally earlier) there can be an extra generation, the offspring of the ones that appeared in late June and early July. This only occurs in good summers, however, and the last time it happened to any degree was in 2013. This another common butterfly that has seen worrying declines in recent years. Like peacocks, any you see now will go on to hibernate over the winter.

At a casual glance it is easy to mistake a small tortoiseshell for the painted lady, a butterfly that migrates in several generations from Morocco in favourable summers and which can be quite common in August, particularly near the south coast. In some years one sees hardly any, however (for example 2017 when the author saw none, or 2018 when there were hardly any).

A more common migrant - and one that does seem to have thrived in recent years (2017 being an excellent year, though 2018 was very poor) - is the red admiral, seen in hedgerows. From mid August some are starting to head south again but they remain widespread into the autumn and some even spend the winter here. Males are often patrolling a territory, so if you disturb one, stand still and it may well come back.

On downland, particularly near the coast, you may also be lucky enough to see another migrant, the clouded yellow. It has a hint of orange in its upper wing and flies past very fast. If it settles, it closes its wings, showing only its green-yellow underwing. It is not to be confused with the much commoner brimstone, a native yellow butterfly with a bright yellow upperwing, which also closes its wings when it settles, revealing a lime green underwing with a very characteristic shape. A new generation of these emerge in August and they will be very long-lived, hibernating over the winter and lasting as adults into June in some cases. Contrast this with some other butterfly species (common blues, for example) that may only live a few days.

If you see a flash of orange in the hedgerow, it is most likely to be the striking comma, another butterfly destined to hibernate over the winter. With their wings closed they look just like a fragment of dead leaf, but in hotter summers a variant is produced in early July with more orangey underwings: these go on to produce a further generation later in August. In such years ones you see at this time of year could be survivors from July or new adults. In either case in August they are in display mode, perching prominently with their upper wings open. Like red admirals they often swoop back and forth across a particular spot, returning to the same perch you disturbed them from.

Easily the most widely seen butterflies in August, however, are the large white, small white and green-veined white, commonly called cabbage whites. These seem to be everywhere (particularly in 2018, when they had a good year after several poor ones) - in gardens, on hedgerows and verges, and flitting across arable fields. Since they rarely seem to rest it is hard to get a close enough look at their wing markings to tell them apart, but if they do come to a stop, the green-veined can distinguished from the other two by the green veins on the underside of its wings, while the large white has larger and blacker wing tips than the other two. Be aware also that some apparent large whites may in fact be female brimstones, which are a pale green-white colour. The shape of the closed wing when at rest should settle the matter: brimstones also never rest with their wings open.

In woodland, the most common butterfly is the speckled wood, a dark brown butterfly with yellow spots, which can be seen throughout the month. They are well camouflaged in this habitat but have a gratifying habit of basking on a sunny leaf, making them easy to see or photograph. In the early part of the month you may also see the magnificent orange silver-washed fritillary in clearings near woodland - for example, feeding on buddleia or any remaining bramble flowers - though they tend to be looking rather tatty by this point.

In theory both the magnificent purple emperor and the much smaller but still impressive purple hairstreak butterfly can also be seen this month, but they live in the top of oak trees and are only spotted on rare forays to the ground (in the case of the purple emperor to imbibe minerals from soil or animal faeces). Also living in tree tops, though this time on ash, is the brown hairstreak, for which August is the best month. With this species, the key is to catch females on fine sunny days coming down to lay eggs on blackthorn bushes or to feed on bramble, thistles or hemp agrimony, but they are very elusive butterflies and you have to have sharp eyes (look out for what looks like a dead leaf) and be lucky in your timing.

Slightly easier to see if you know where to look is the very rare wood white. Confined to a few pockets, this very small and feeble-flying white butterfly (it does not look like any of the other white species) is nevertheless fairly conspicuous if you are in the right place. One such is Oaken Wood to the south west of Chiddingfold in Surrey.

On downland and in other grassland meadow brown butterflies are still very common - almost boringly so. They last most of the month, fading towards its end but with a few lasting into September. Much more exciting is to see the tiny flash of blue that is the male common blue, which is well-named as it is by far the most common blue butterfly that you are likely to see. (Thankfully, it had better years in 2017 and 2018 after two poor ones in 2015 and 2016, though a July drought in 2018 may reduce numbers sharply in 2019). It is usually found on downland, but sometimes in other grassy places.

Near hedgerows (and particularly around ivy) the holly blue is also a distinct possibility, however, as it produces a second generation in late July which is on the wing in the first three weeks of August. Telling it apart from the common blue can be a challenge. If you see the underwing, the holly blue's is a light blue (it can look silvery in flight) while the common blue's is light brown. Holly blue females also have a black tip to their upper forewings. But generally if you see blue butterfly near a hedgerow or ivy and away from grassland, it is likely to be a holly blue.

On flower-rich south-facing downland in the second half of August another possibility is the adonis blue, which produces a second generation at this time. However, this is another butterfly that is only found in certain locations (for example the lower slopes of Ranmore Common near Dorking, Yeosden Nature Reserve near Saunderton in the Chilterns, or Mill Hill Reserve on the downs near Shoreham-by-Sea).

The adonis likes south-facing downland slopes and looks almost identical to the common blue, though if you see the two together you can see that the adonis has upperwings of a brighter, lighter shade of blue. (Be careful, though: seen in isolation, the common blue's also look light and bright). If you get a closer look, the adonis tiny dark lines through the white border of its wings (though common blues also have slight dark marks on the inside edge of the border: often only a photograph settles the matter). The underwings of the adonis are also a more chocolatey brown than those of the common blue.

Much easier to see on flower-covered chalk downland - try the southern slopes of Pewley Down near Guildford, Castle Hill nature reserve near Lewes, or the lower slopes of Ranmore Common - is the chalk hill blue, which is bigger than the adonis or common blue and somewhat paler. It can look almost white in flight, but is clearly blue when you see it at rest - and has black veins and distinctive black edging to its upperwings and black veins. Populations of this butterfly are at their best in the first half of August.

The holly blue apart, the females of all these blue species are all brown, with orange dots around the edge of their wings. Differences between them are subtle, and if you see a tiny butterfly fitting this description it might be a brown argus. See the July butterfly page for more discussion on this.

While the brown argus is mainly seen on downland, it can also be seen on heather-covered heathland in August. Another butterfly of this habitat that is at its best this month is the grayling, a butterfly so well camouflaged that it can be a metre from your face and you can't see it - unless it moves, which it is unlikely to do with you watching it so closely. Adding to its elusiveness, in this part of the world it is found only on a few Surrey heaths (try Purbright Common).

Back on grassland, a tiny butterfly - orange in flight, but only ever seen at rest with its wings closed - is the small heath. In photographs it looks quite similar to the meadow brown or gatekeeper in this pose, but its minute size makes it easy to distinguish from these two. It is also always close to the ground, never being seen above a metre or so in height. A new generation of these butterflies is usually emerging as the month goes on, so you are more likely to see them at the end of the month.

Another tiny butterfly with orange and red markings that you may just see during August is the small copper. Meanwhile, if you see a medium-sized butterfly with black and orange markings like the comma, but with an eye on each wing, it is a wall. This butterfly is found especially on heaths and grassland near the south coast but is sadly very rare these days. Try Portland Bill or Swyre Head near Kimmeridge in Dorset, or the cliffs between Folkestone and Dover.

Day-flying moths

There still a good number of day-flying moths flitting about on verges or in flowery grassland in August - in particular the tiny white grass veneer moths which snap shut into a thin line as soon as they land making them almost invisible. Early in the month you might also see the striking six-spot burnet with its red on black spots, which is particularly fond of knapweed and ragwort flowers.

You also continue to see - or disturb - various small white moths on path verges and downland - for example the common carpet, chalk carpet and lace-border, the latter found only on the North Downs of Kent and Surrey. The treble bar is a greyer colour.

Other day-flying moths I have identified in August include the yellow shell, shaded broad-bar and the snout, as well as the tiny mint moth - the latter found particularly feeding on herbs such as marjoram and also known as a small purple and gold after its colourings. On the south coast - the seafront gardens of Eastbourne or Folkestone seem to be good spots - you may be lucky enough to see the enormous hummingbird hawkmoth, a migrant from southern Europe.

August can see an influx of silver Y moths, a migrant which can arrive in quite some quantities on the south coast, particularly on downland, and which are especially active later in the afternoon. They are large - about the size of a meadow brown butterfly - with greyish with white markings on their wings, but their constant buzzing flight makes it hard to see this.

Insects fade slowly

Insects slowly become scarcer during August, as they die off, get eaten or become dormant, but the process is hard to quantify and depends somewhat on the weather. A hot sunny end to August can prolong insect lives - so long as there is not too much of a drought - or a cool, changeable one bring them to an early end. In places where there is a good food source you may also still get a good concentration. There is also no doubt that you can see some insects right to the end of the month, and indeed into September. But if you compare their general frequency at the start and end of the month, there is a noticeable reduction - a real sign that summer is coming to an end.

The bumble bees you see flying around in August can still be workers early in the month but are increasingly likely to be new queens as the month goes on. Late in the summer these emerge from their colonies and mate with males, who are produced towards the end of the season. All but the new fertilised queens then die off in the autumn: towards the end of summer you may see them feeding up before finding themselves a hole to spend the winter in.

Honeybees live in colonies all winter - they make honey to keep themselves fed - so they can still be seen out in force wherever there is nectar for them to eat. Solitary bees - some of which look like honeybees and others like bumble bees - overwinter as adults or as larvae, depending on species: some are still around in August, though they get scarce later in the month.

Wasps seem to be exception to the general decline in insects, but this is mainly because they become a particular nuisance to humans eating outside in August. Earlier in the summer they are living in colonies and the worker wasps are busy feeding the larvae on a diet of crushed insects: they in turn are fed by sweet secretions produced by the larvae. But as the summer draws to an end the young queens and males fly off to mate, and the colony breaks up. The workers, now redundant, go off in search of rotting fruit and other sugar-rich foods. The result is a pleasant retirement for the wasps before they die off in the autumn, but a plague for our picnics, teas and pub gardens.

Flies in all their various guises reduce in number in August but if you look closely at a bramble bush covered with ripe blackberries you may see quite a lot of them. Cattle also continue to attract them and in general there are still fair numbers about even at the end of the month. Hoverflies are already scarce at the start of August, though with the occasional one seen to the month's end, and the same is true of the unidentifiable tiny flying insects which can fill the air in July but which become an increasingly rare sight as the month progresses.

In contrast to all this decline, there are some bugs that are actually emerging as adults in August, their parents having mated in spring and their offspring having spent the summer as larvae and then pupae. An example is the dock bug and also the seven-spot ladybird. Towards the end of the month they are joined by a new generation of green shield bugs. All of these feed up in the late summer sun and then hibernate to breed next year. By contrast the invasive harlequin ladybird has been active and breeding all summer - an advantage it has over native ladybird species which breed only once a year. In late August 2016 there were a lot of them about.

By late August your arms and legs also no longer get covered in midge bites, and a lot fewer insects invade your house if you leave a window open. The crane flies, grasshoppers and crickets that one sees close to the ground early in the month are less numerous by the end, but if you look closely you can still see them. Ants continue to be active above ground all month and you may see an eruption of flying ants: this is the mating ritual of the black garden ant, where the queens become fertilised and fly off to found new colonies.

There continue to be lots of spiders hidden away in grass and among plants. The early morning dew in late summer means you can see the threads money spiders make as they "balloon" - that is attach their threads to a blade of grass and then use air currents to carry them across a field. In gardens spider's webs seem to become a lot more prominent as the month goes on: female garden orb weavers (including the distinctive garden cross spiders with a cross on their back) are often the species doing this. They are active at night, building their webs in the pre-dawn hours, and since they don't stay sticky for long they have to be remade every day or two (a task which only takes about half an hour), the spider consuming the old web as she goes.

In grassland you can also see fearsome looking wasp spiders, which can trap large prey such as butterflies in their webs. Later in the month you may also see scarily large house spiders stalking around your house. These do NOT come into the house at this time of year to escape the cold: they are males who have been there all along, manning webs in obscure corners. But from mid August they come out looking for a mate, which is why you encounter them on the stairs or walking across your living room. Please leave them alone: they will not harm you. The much more rarely seen daddy longlegs are their predators.

Pondskaters can still be found on the surface of still water and you may just see a damselfly or banded demoiselle early in the month. Dragonflies continue to hunt unabated, with various species to be seen. Identifying them is difficult because they rarely stop to rest and have 360 degree vision to spot you if you try to get close. But the common darter is one August species and the striking southern hawker and migrant hawker are two others.

More August pages:


© Peter Conway 2006-2018 • All Rights Reserved

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