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July butterflies and insects

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

Picture: silver-washed fritillary male. Click here for 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. This is, in fact, 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 include the almost ubiquitous white butterflies that are colloquially known cabbage whites, though this term covers three distinct species - the large white, small white and green-veined white, all of which are evident in July. At the start of the month they are between generations and numbers of them can be very low, but then a new generation emerges and in the second half they are can be very numerous.

Telling the three species apart is not easy as these are very energetic butterflies that never seem to sit still for long (and at first glance the female brimstone can look like one: see below). 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 in grassland and on nearby hedgerows (eg on bramble flowers). It looks as brown as you might expect in flight, but when at rest the females also have a patch of orange on their upperwings (males have just a faint smudge of it). Though frequently seen, they are not quite as numerous as it in June, except perhaps early in the month, but they last until its end.
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The meadow brown may 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 nevertheless 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 forewing for the meadow brown - distinguish the two species absolutely, however.

Looking similar to the meadow brown, but smaller and with more orange on its upperwings is the gatekeeper, which appears in the first or second week of July and is at its height in the second half. It is found along hedgerows, shrubby downland and sea cliffs, and it is particularly fond of feeding on 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.

Also to be found on hedgerows in July, as well as in all sorts of other habitats (they have a habit of turning up in the most unlikely places), 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, though numbers vary - 2017 was an excellent year, 2019 fairly poor and 2018 very poor, while in 2020 July was the best month for them in an otherwise unimpressive year. 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 you see in the first half July - or should do. Small tortoiseshells were common at this time as recently as 2013 and used to have a charming habit of basking on country paths, making them easy to see. But in recent years (apart from 2020: see end of paragraph) their caterpillars have been affected by a parasite and numbers have fallen sharply. Research suggest that those that do become adults at this time of year mostly go straight into hibernation, so as to emerge and mate early in spring when the parasite is not active. However some may mate in July and produce a further generation in late summer. (In 2020 I had several small tortoiseshell sightings in the first half of July, however, so hopefully the downward trend is going into reverse.)

The second half of July also sees a new generation of peacock butterflies, the offspring of the ones that mated in the spring. Less common these days than they used to be, they are particularly fond of buddleia flowers. Like the small tortoiseshells they tend to go into hibernation in late July or early August (technically "diapause", a complete cessation of metabolic activity). Sheds and World War II pillboxes are favoured spots for this and you may just see them hanging upside down from the roofs of these later in the month.

Similar in appearance in some ways to the small tortoiseshell, but more colourful, is the painted lady, a migrant that travels in two or three generations from the mountains of Morocco to arrive in great abundance in some years, but only in small quantities in others. 2009 was a famously good year, as was 2019 in many parts of England, though in the south east it was only a reasonable one. By contrast both 2017 and 2018 were very poor, and in 2020 they were almost entirely absent. As with the red admiral, painted ladies first arrive in May or June, and as July goes on a second generation appears, the offspring of the first arrivals, boosted by further migrants from the continent, to reach a peak at the end of the month and in August. Near the south coast seems to be a good place to spot them (my solitary 2020 sighting was on 22 July on Beachy Head) but they can be found inland as well.

Another migrant that comes over in very 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 month to spot them.

If you see a large pure yellow butterfly, then it is almost certainly a brimstone, the second generation of which can start to appear from quite early in the month, later hibernating to emerge and breed early in spring. This is another butterfly that always seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere. The much whiter females can be confused with one of the cabbage white species - until its lands, when its different wing shape is obvious.

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. But 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. 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. They fly in a characteristic stately glide. The broad track through Homefield Wood near Marlow is a good place to see this butterfly: other sites include Bookham Common, Ashtead and Epsom Commons and Norbury Park and Fetcham Downs near Dorking. The less frequently seen female lacks the streaks and is a bit browner in hue, making it look like a different species.

Bookham, Epsom and Ashtead Commons are also a good place to spot another elusive woodland butterfly, the white admiral, which has a rapid, purposeful flight, visits bramble flowers on woodland rides, and lays eggs on honeysuckle.

Also in woodlands, you may be lucky enough to see the purple emperor, the UK's largest butterfly. It normally confines itself to the top of large oak trees, but can come down onto paths in the morning to gather minerals from mud or dog poo. Bookham and Epsom Commons are possible places to see them, but they are also a specialty of the Knepp Wildland south of Horsham, which even has special viewing platforms in favoured oak trees and runs purple emperor safaris in early July. It is the male of the species you normally see, whose upperwings have iridescent purple hues if seen in the right light. The plainer but larger female is even more elusive but comes down from the oak trees to lay eggs on sallow (goat willow), where she may just be spotted. Both genders could be confused at a casual glance with the white admiral.

Another treetop specialist is the purple hairstreak. This is a relatively common butterfly that is on the wing throughout July, but rarely seen since it spends most of its time around the tops of oak trees. It may sometimes descend to lower perches, however. The underside of its wings is grey, with one orange eye spot, and unlike other hairstreaks it may rest with its wings open, showing wonderful purple markings. Bookham and Ashtead Commons are a good place to see it.

There is also a white-letter hairstreak, which has brown upperwings (always closed when at rest) and white and orange highlights on its lighter brown underwings. Its caterpillars feed on elm leaves and so it was hard hit by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. Today it is said to be recovering, living on hedgerow elms and wych elm, but is another elusive tree top species. Your best hope of seeing it is when it comes down to feed on bramble or thistle flowers.

One more rarity to look out for in the woods to the south west of Chiddingfold in Surrey, or if on holiday in East Devon, is the wood white, which is much smaller than the cabbage whites, and has a very flaccid, feeble flight. Its main breeding season is May and early June, but in good summers it can have a second generation in the second half of July.

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 easy enough to see in shady places throughout the south east, having a pleasing habit of basking on sunny leaves. This butterfly has overlapping generations, since it overwinters as both a pupae and an adult, and so is sometimes quite abundant in July: in other years, numbers are fairly sparse.

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, and gatekeepers on scrubby downland. The star attraction, however, are the lovely marbled white, whose black-on-white markings make them one of the easiest butterflies to identify. In the first three weeks of the month you can see them in large numbers in favoured locations, 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. Towards the end of the month numbers are tailing off, however.

Downland is also the place to see another fritillary - the dark green fritillary, which is at its best in the first half of the month in places such as the southern slopes of Beachy Head, at the bottom of the landward facing slopes behind Belle Tout lighthouse near Birling Gap, at Hutchinson's and Chapel Banks on the southern edge of Croydon, and on Box Hill. Despite its name, its upperwings are bright orange, its inaccurate moniker coming from the striking green and silver markings on its underwing. You would need to study its upperwings carefully to spot the difference between it and the silver-washed fritillary mentioned above (it lacks the silver-washed's streaks, for example), but usually this is not necessary as it lives in a quite different habitat. Be careful, though, as if there is a woodland bordering the downland, a silver-washed fritillary might just emerge from it to feed on bramble. The dark-green fritillary, by contrast, favours knapweed and thistles as food plants, the only things that seem to stop it in its otherwise very purposeful and continuous flight.

If you see what looks like a fritillary with a dark eye on its wing, it is a wall (sometimes known as a wall brown): in flight they can also look like a very determined and rapid-flying meadow brown, though when (or rather if) they stop, the difference between the two butterflies is very obvious. Once common across the south east, they are sadly rare now and only found near coasts. Look out for them in the second half of the month on the cliff tops between Dover and Kingsdown, in the grazed area in Folkestone Warren and on the cliffs between there and Dover, and on the South Downs behind Shoreham-by-Sea. They are also fairly common on Portland Bill near Weymouth, and a large colony - maybe 50 or more - were evident in the third week of July 2018 on the ridge between Swyre Head and Tyneham near Swanage, and in early August 2019 on the cliffs nearby at Worbarrow Bay.

Look closely in July and you can also see small tiny orange butterflies flitting about in grassland or nearby 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 most widely 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.

Also found on chalk downland slopes with short grass (as opposed to the longer grass favoured by large, small and Essex skippers) and then only in a very few locations in the south east (for example Colley Hill near Reigate, Brockham Quarry and the southern slopes of Box Hill) is the silver-spotted skipper. The chief characteristic of this tiny butterfly is the speed of its flight - it is almost like watching a grasshopper jump. It appears in late July and carries on into August and so has little or no overlap with the three more common skipper species. Firm identification comes from the white squares on the tips of its wings (both upper and underwings).

Both grizzled and dingy skippers can also have a small second generation late in the month on short turf downland, but these are very elusive. 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 these are between generations in July but still occasionally seen, in the case of the small heath usually at the very start or end of the month. The small heath is only found close to the ground and never rests with its wings open, so if you see a 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 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, and especially near ivy or bramble, it is a holly blue, the second generation of which appears in July, though numbers vary greatly from year to year. Apart from the habitat, you can distinguish holly blues from common blues by the fact that they fly at waist height and above (common blues always stick close to the ground) and because they have light blue underwings (in common blues they are beige with black spots and a blush of blue at the base). The holly blue also has a dark border to its upper forewing, smaller in the male but quite large and prominent in the female.

Female common blues look completely different to their males, being chocolate brown (sometimes blushed to varying degrees with dark blue) with tiny orange markings around the wing edges. As such they are easy to confuse with the brown argus, which has similar markings, is also found on downland, and is also more likely later in the month than earlier. The male brown argus can be distinguished from the female common blue by its smaller size, though the female brown argus is larger and so similar in size to the female common blue. The scallops on the edge of the common blue female's wings are different, however, having some white around their black spots, which is absent in the brown argus: it also never has the bluish tints on its upperwing that female common blues can have. In addition the brown argus has a small slightly darker spot on each upper forewing, and is in general a neater, smarter butterfly than the common blue female.

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, and can be very numerous (two or three hundred in one location) in the spots its favours (try Castle Hill Reserve near Lewes, the southern slopes of Pewley Down near Guildford, the downland slopes between Otford and Shoreham in Kent, 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 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 brown colouring (with black and orange spots) on its underwing. It tends to keep a low profile, hiding near the ground, and can usually be identified by the presence of chalk hill blue males nearby.

Much more elusive blue species you may just see in July include the small blue (which actually has brown upperwings and greyish underwings, and is very very tiny): it can have a small second generation in late July. Meanwhile early in the month you may just see the silver-studded blue. It lives on heather and is pretty much confined to the Surrey heathlands (try Whitmoor or Fairmile Commons, or Hindhead Common near Haslemere), but is only really seen early in July, June being its main flight time.

In the same habitat in the second half the month (possibly earlier) you may just be lucky enough to spot the grayling. This heathland butterfly is so well camouflaged that you only see it when it moves: one on the ground can be invisible even if it is just one metre in front of your nose. You really need to go on a sunny day to a location where it is known to be present to have any chance of seeing it. (Try Dawney Heath near Purbright.)

Day flying moths

There are nearly 2500 species of moth in the UK (as opposed to just 59 of 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, but one characteristic that marks them out is their tendency to head straight for cover when disturbed, whereas butterflies evade unwanted attentions through their erratic flight.

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 - small white moths that fly up from verges or hedgerows as you pass. The common carpet is between generations this month, but survivors from the last one may appear at the start of the month or early arrivals of the next one at its end. Silver-ground carpets also last into July and for chalk carpets this month is the start of their flight season. Also white is the lovely delicate lace border, a night-flying moth sometimes disturbed by day and found only on the Kent and Surrey North Downs, which reappears at the end of the month after a generation gap.

Brown moths include the mother of pearl and shaded broad bar, while the treble bar, which reappears after a generation gap at the end of the month, is striped grey. You may also see a yellow shell, and the colourful dusky sallow, a night flier, may emerge to feed during the day on knapweed on downland.

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, where their whirring flight is what usually catches your eye. In addition, since 2017 there has been a regular influx (or population explosion) of the Jersey tiger in the south-east. Formerly found mainly in the south west, this is a very large moth with striking red flashes between on its wings revealed when in flight: it is often spotted in gardens. On the south coast - I have seen them on seafront flowers in Eastbourne, Folkestone and Broadstairs - you may also be lucky enough to catch sight of the huge hummingbird hawkmoth, an occasional migrant from the continent. It does indeed look like a hummingbird, hovering in mid air to put its long proboscis into flowers such as red valerian.

Notice also the numerous very tiny white grass veneer moths which flit about in grass, particularly on downland, disappearing on landing by snapping shut to perfectly resemble a piece of grass or twig. There are various species of these including 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. A very similar moth in the same habitat is the small yellow underwing.

Look out also for plume moths, which have thin wings and look a bit like a 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 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. Flowers such as thistle, knapweed, burdock and ragwort can attract great concentrations of them.

Bees include honeybees, bumble bees and solitary bee species. Bumble bee colonies last about two to three months, so can be starting to break up in July. Certainly there seems to be a reduction in bumble bee numbers about this time, though some bumble bee workers continue to be seen right to the end of the month and indeed throughout August. In the second half of July you may also see new queens.

Identifying solitary bee species is hard since many hoverflies have evolved to look like bees to avoid predators. Some of these are quite striking, such as the large pellucid and the hornet mimic hoverflies. Equally there are many tiny hoverfly species, a whole world of which we are barely aware. Towards the end of the month wasps can start to become a nuisance: see August butterflies and insects for an explanation for this.

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 first of the two most probable months in which to experience a swarm of flying ants - common garden ants in their mating phase. They emerge on warm still days in enormous numbers, so many that they can sometimes be seen from weather satellites. Close up, they can sometimes resemble clouds of drifting seeds.

This month is also another good one for dragonflies and damselflies, though the latter are getting scarcer as the month goes on. 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 and large and small red damselflies. 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 difficult 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 out for, as is the similar but smaller migrant hawker. The enormous blue and green emperor is also always an exciting sight. In addition note the common and ruddy darter, whose males have bright red bodies while the females are a greeny-yellow, and blue-tailed species such as the broad-bodied chaser and black-tailed skimmer.

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 (and sometimes gathering in "orgies") on this flower. They can also be seen on wild carrot, angelica, ragwort and hedge parsley. Another very colourful beetle is the iridescent green rose chafer - not common, but an exciting sight.

Grass in July is alive with grasshoppers, crickets, crane flies and all sorts of other creepy crawlies. 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 and in 2019 a yellow fourteen-spot. Meanwhile the invasive harlequin ladybird is in adult form and mating vigorously throughout the summer, though in 2020 they seemed relatively absent.

More July pages:


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