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June butterflies and insects

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

Picture: a marbled white butterfly roosting on a blade of grass. Click here for 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 - the so-called "butterfly gap", with the overwintering and early spring species now largely gone, and the summer ones not starting to appear until late in the month. But this is still a great month for butterflies, with many different species on the wing. Flowering bramble bushes are a particularly good place to spot many of them.

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 early in the month 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 late July or August. Most years they are a very rare sight, 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. Female brimstones are white too, and can easily be mistaken for one of the white species when in flight, but they are more prone to stop and rest, and when they do the green undersides and unusual shape of their wings is very distinctive.

Another over-wintering butterfly, the small tortoiseshell, has a second generation in June - or should do. This butterfly, which lays its eggs on stinging nettles, went into a severe decline from 2016 to 2019, and a study in the latter year suggested that the ones that emerge in June now go straight into winter hibernation to avoid a parasite that otherwise kills their caterpillars. However, in 2020 there was a noticeable revival, with small tortoiseshells regularly seen throughout the month. They have an endearing habit of basking in the sun on tracks and footpaths, flying up as you approach, making them quite easy to see. Once they are on the wing they fly in a way that is faster and more direct than the apparently random fluttering of most other butterflies.

Similar at a casual glance to the small tortoiseshell, but much more colourful, is the painted lady. This lovely migrant comes all the way from Morocco, sometimes by way of intermediate generations in Spain or France, 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 there may be more new arrivals. How many of these come depends on conditions further south: in some years there are huge numbers and in others relatively few or even none. In the south east the last really big incursion was in 2009, with a more modest one in 2019, even though other parts of the country saw much bigger numbers in that year. In 2020, by contrast, there were almost no painted ladies - the author saw only one the whole year, in late July. Peak time for this butterfly is late July and August, when offspring from the earlier arrivals also emerge, 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 early June are probably part of the first wave of females, who in this case 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 flowering hedgerows. A few may be seen right from the start of the month, but they are more common from mid June and by the end 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 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 can be fainter or absent, while the orange patches and eyes in the top corner of the upperwings on the male meadow brown can also become quite faint. The underwings of either species 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. The large skipper is the first to appear and may be seen right from the start of June: the other two take flight from mid month, though may not be abundant until its end. All three species are found both in taller 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 those of 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 this butterly 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.

It is also just possible you may see a dingy skipper or grizzled skipper in the first half of June, though May is the best time for them. Never easy to spot, these are tiny brown-patterned butterflies that are easy to mistake for day-flying moths. Your best hope of seeing one is on chalk downland, though they can occur in other habitats.

Another tiny and very elusive butterfly of flowery hillsides, hedgerows and woodland rides is the small copper which has bright orangey red upper wing markings. 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.

Meadow browns, ringlets, skippers and small coppers are all butterflies you might see on chalk downland in June, and as the month comes to a close this is also the place to see marbled whites, though they can appear in lowland grassy fields too. In favoured spots - try the slope of Box Hill above Burford Bridge or Fackenden Down near Otford - there can be very large numbers of this beautiful black and white butterfly. It particularly likes knapweed and scabious flowers, and females (which have a browner lower underwing) often take up position on a favoured flower and wait for the males to come and pay court. Much fluttering of wings decides if mating takes place.

June is also the month to see the dark green fritillary, a 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 appears on downland around the middle of the month - for example on Box Hill, Fackenden Down, Chapel or Hutchinson's Bank near New Addington, or on the South Downs. You would need to study it carefully to spot the difference between it and the silver-washed fritillary mentioned below, but usually it is not necessary as it lives in a quite different habitat, and has a powerful and direct flight quite unlike the graceful glide of the silver-washed. 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 may feed on bramble too, but favours knapweed and thistles.

Incidentally, 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 (and probably slightly more so when they have a second generation in later July and August), these can nevertheless sometimes be seen near the south coast - for example on the clifftops near Dover, High & Over Hill near Seaford, Mill Hill Reserve near Shoreham-by-Sea, Swyre Head or Worbarrow Bay near Kimmeridge in Dorset, and on Portland Bill.

Mid May to late June is also when the glanville fritillary can be found on downland and crumbling cliffs on the south coast of the Isle of Wight (for example, between St Catherine's Point and Freshwater Bay). Some were introduced to Hutchinson's Bank near Addiscombe on the southern edge of London in 2011, where they were still flourishing in 2020, spreading also to the nearby Chapel Bank.

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 at the start of the month than at the end, when a changeover of generations is taking place. The very much rarer adonis blue, found only on south-facing chalk downland with horseshoe vetch growing on it, is also a possibility early in the month - try the southern slopes of Ranmore Common near Dorking, or Mill Hill Reserve near Shoreham-by-Sea. It is distinguishable from the common blue mainly by tiny lines crossing the white border to its wings, and by its darker brown underwing. Its upperwings are also lighter blue, though the common blue looks a fairly bright blue in flight too.

The female of both these species is brown, and with the common blue female having 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 can be distinguished by its smaller size, though the female brown argus is larger, and so similar in size to the common blue female. Both sexes of brown argus have much neater oranger scallops on their upperwings, however, which extend all the way along the edge, while those on the female common blue fade away a bit towards the top of the forewing. The female common blue also has a white area below the black spots underneath the scallops, and often has a blue blush on her body, sometimes extending to the wings (more rarely, the whole upperwing is flushed blue). Adonis blue females are altogether much drabber, with barely any scallops at all, and in any case are not often seen. Usually their upper wings are brown, but may occasionally be flushed with blue.

Very occasionally you may also see a holly blue in early June, distinguished from the above two species by having light blue undersides to its wings, but more particularly because it flies at chest or head height around ivy or bramble bushes, as well as shrubs in suburban parks or gardens. Common blues are never found in this habitat, and always fly close to the ground. The holly blues you see this month are probably plucky survivors from the generation of this butterfly that appeared in late April or early May, though there is a second generation which appears from July onwards.

If you see a very very tiny brown butterfly in June but with a grey underside (which looks silvery in flight), then it could be the small blue, which peaks in population early in the month. But this is a very rare butterfly only found on bare downland in a few locations (try Pewley Down near Guildford or Hutchinson's Bank near Addiscombe). Another very localised blue species is the tiny silver-studded blue, which is found on heather. The Surrey heathlands (try Whitmoor and Fairmile Commons, or Hindhead Common near Haslemere) are one of the strongholds of these butterflies in the UK: mid June to early July is the best time to see them.

In shady places the butterfly you are most likely to see is the speckled wood, which can be seen throughout the month, and has a gratifying habit of perching on leaves in sunny spots and so is very easy to identify. 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 and along open rides in certain woodlands (try Bookham, Ashtead or Epsom Commons near Leatherhead, or Homefield Wood near Marlow) 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, making them almost look like a different species.

When looking out for silver-washed fritillaries make sure you are not seeing the comma butterfly, which can look quite similar to it in flight. Once it lands, (which it usually does after a short while), the comma is very different, however - with similar markings to the silver-washed, 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 starts to appear mid month. Its favoured habitat is hedgerows and scrub rather than woodland, but that means it can also be found in the woodland clearings and rides frequented by silver-washed fritillaries. 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.

An even more elusive woodland species (again try Bookham, Ashtead or Epsom Commons) is the white admiral, which comes out of the shade to feed briefly on bramble or to draw minerals from a patch of mud, and then disappears back in again. It is usually on the wing from mid June onwards. It is black and white, but has a wonderfully colourful underwing, if you get the chance to see it.

Even harder to see is the purple emperor, one of our largest butterflies but one which lives almost entirely in oak tree tops. In mid to late June one 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, the male has iridescent purple upperwing colourings, though only if seen in certain lights: otherwise it, and the rarely seen female, are dark brown with white markings and could possibly be confused with the somewhat smaller white admiral. Epsom Common and the Knepp Wildlands near Horsham are two places you might see them.

Another treetop specialist is the purple hairstreak. This is a relatively common butterfly that starts to appear in late June, but since it also spends most of its time around the tops of oak trees, it is hard to spot. It may sometimes descend to lower perches, however (I have seen them resting on bramble and hazel leaves). The underside of its wings is grey, with one orange eye spot, and unlike other hairstreaks it may rest with its wings open, showing their wonderful purple markings.

There is also a white-letter hairstreak, which appears in mid June and 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 this butterfly 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. Very similar looking, but with orange on the margins of its rarely seen upperwings, and likewise on its underwings, is the black hairstreak. Flying at the same time as the white-letter, it is mainly found in the Midlands, but there is an established colony in the south east on Ditchling Common, and some were found on Epsom Common in 2020.

An equally rare woodland species is the very elusive wood white. Notably smaller than the commoner white species and with a rather feeble flight that makes it impossible to mistake, it is found only in certain pockets, one being near Sidmouth, East Devon and the other Oaken Wood, near Chiddingfold in Surrey. Its spring generation appears in May but you might catch the tail end of it in early June. Woodland rides (grassy places between trees) are its favoured habitat. In coppiced areas in East Blean Woods between Canterbury and Herne Bay you can also see heath fritillaries in June, one of the only places in the country they are found.

Day-flying moths

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

The easiest ones to spot are those that are poisonous to predators, and so have big bold colours and no need to conceal themselves. These include the six-spot burnet, which is black with red spots and likes to feed on knapweed. Less common and smaller is the five-spot burnet (one spot on the bottom end of their wings, rather than two).

In flight these two species appear as a whirring mass of red, and so do cinnabar moths, which have similar colourings to the six spot burnet but with bands of red rather than spots. 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.

In grassland you may see the burnet companion and the mother shipton, the latter having markings supposed to resemble a witch's face: both of these might be confused in flight with a dingy skipper butterfly. Look out also for the latticed heath in the same habitat, and - much more rarely, in ancient meadows with pignut in - the chimney sweeper, which looks like a tiny black butterfly. On downland (and sometimes other habitats) there are also influxes of the whirring grey silver Y some years: it is a migrant from North Africa when can fly 800 kilometres in a single night by catching high altitude winds.

Other day-flying moths you might see in June include the speckled yellow, another moth which looks very like a butterfly, and has similar habits, flitting over shrubs. The yellow shell is a much more shy species of the same colour. Among bracken you may spot the brown silver-line.

There are also a number of white moths that you may disturb as you walk, including the common carpet, the silver-ground carpet, the grass rivulet and the delicate white lace border (a night flying moth sometimes seen by day, and found only on the Kent and Surrey North Downs).

At an even smaller scale there are micro moths, most of which are too small to identify. But notice the very common grass veneers, tiny white moths which snap shut to an almost invisible line when they land on blades of downland grass. You also might be able to identify the miniscule small yellow underwing, which has two yellow patches on its lower set of wings.

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

Insects

June is a month that is full of weird and wonderful insects. Bees of all kinds are common - honeybees, worker bumble bees (the queens now being ensconced in the nest, producing young: this seems to be the peak time for bumble bee workers) 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. A surprising number of bees you see turn out to be hoverflies, however: they have evolved to look this way to evade predators. There are myriad different types of varying sizes and this is a good month to see them.

If you look closely at other plants, all sorts of tiny wonders may be seen: examples include dock bugs, hawthorn bugs and green shield bugs, all of which are more likely early in the month because they mate in May and then die. A tiny little green beetle found on flowers at this time of year is the aptly named swollen-thighed beetle. In grassland you see crane flies, grasshoppers and crickets. Towards the very 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, while more rarely and earlier in the month you may see the similar sailor beetle (it has blue wings, while the soldier beetle is all orangey-red)

You can also see various types of ladybird - all too many of them, sadly, turning out to be the invasive harlequin ladybird, which has many guises. It breeds all summer, giving it an advantage, while the native ladybirds, such as the common seven-spot ladybird, breed only once a year in May (or sometimes in June), then produce young which become adults at the end of the summer.

June is also another month when house flies (aka bluebottles) are 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. 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.

Early in the month - possibly also later - you can still see dancing clouds of mayflies at dusk near a river, particularly chalk streams: they live just one or two nights, 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 black-patched 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. Seen much less often is the beautiful demoiselle, whose males have more solid black wings, with the females having brown wings.

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 in a rather painful-looking circle). The most common species here is the common blue damselfly (the male is blue, while the female can be green, blue, black and white, or straw-coloured: sometimes newly emerged males with black and beige markings can also be seen). Note also the blue-tailed damselfly with a black body and a blue tip, the green emerald damselfly and the striking large red damselfly.

Dragonflies - some of them very large - hunt for smaller insects near ponds and further afield, and include the magnificent blue and green emperor, the broad-bodied chaser, and the black-tailed skimmer which is found near gravel pits. Later in the month they are joined by the red common or ruddy darter. The problem with identifying dragonflies is that you need to catch them at rest to do so. They tend to patrol a particular area for a good long time, darting upwards from time to time to catch insects invisible to us. But every now and again they do alight on a stalk or a leaf, enabling an identification to be made.

On still water you can see pondskaters. Cuckoo spit - actually a foam produced by the larvae of the froghopper (because it makes big jumps: another name, not surprisingly, is the spittlebug) - is common on plants until the third week.

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