Lepidopteran of the month: Red admiral butterfly

In Britain in February, we don’t see many butterflies on the wing. But some butterfly species do overwinter here as adults, including the very gorgeous red admiral.

Here’s a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) drinking nectar from a butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii). Photograph by my fellow blogger Finn Holding at The Naturephile.
Red admiral Exmoor 080810 DSC_2946

V. atalanta is common and widespread in Europe, North America, North Africa and Asia. It’s also been introduced to New Zealand. It’s found throughout the British Isles, most commonly in southern England (scroll down to ‘Phenology’ for a graph of seasonal changes, and to ‘Abundance’ for a map).

This territorial and migratory butterfly is the species most likely to be seen flying on sunny winter days. Its population swells each summer (scroll down for a summary of seasonal changes in different parts of the butterfly’s lifecycle) due to migration from central Europe.

It’s not easy to survive a British winter if you’re an adult butterfly. V. atalanta doesn’t even go into deep hibernation, as some species do. Perhaps V. atalanta evolved to risk the winter because if it lays eggs early enough in spring, the next generation of caterpillars find their food plant, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), putting out fresh shoots.

One way or another, the red admirals are here. Well, in fact they’re not here in Yorkshire just yet, or if they’re here they’re keeping themselves out of sight. But they’ve been seen already this year in several counties of southern England. Some of the butterfly watchers who reported the first sightings of 2013 saw red admirals on the 1st of January. Brimstones, commas, peacocks, small tortoiseshells and speckled woods were reported too. What a lovely way to welcome in the New Year.

When summer comes, the red admiral will be flying in Britain and I look forward to seeing it with other butterflies, drinking nectar from my aptly named butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii). Finn’s photograph on this blog post shows what I’ve to look forward to in my garden.

Not just in my garden, either. B. davidii is an alien species but it’s become common and widespread in many of the same places where U. dioica grows. So there’s plenty of food for the red admiral when it’s a caterpillar, and plenty of food when it’s an adult.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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3 Responses to Lepidopteran of the month: Red admiral butterfly

  1. Finn Holding says:

    I hope your garden is full of red admirals this summer! And small tortoiseshells… and all the others. Let us know what you find.

  2. Pingback: Six red admirals drinking | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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