Identify garden butterflies

How to identify common garden butterflies

Male Common Blue ©Zsuzsanna Bird

Why do butterflies visit gardens?

A variety of different butterflies visit our gardens looking for food, places to breed, or spots to overwinter as adults, larvae or pupae. Each garden will attract a different set of butterflies depending on the plants, trees and shrubs present, and what the surrounding habitats are like.

Why are gardens important for butterflies?

Over recent years, many of our once-common butterflies have declined dramatically in number due to increased development, agricultural intensification, habitat loss and climate change; for instance, the small tortoiseshell has decreased by a massive 80% in South East England since 1990. But butterflies do have a lifeline. Together, the 16 million gardens across the UK form an area for wildlife larger than all our National Nature Reserves. This patchwork of habitats helps our wildlife to move about freely, forming a vast living landscape that links urban green spaces with the wider countryside.

Which butterflies am I likely to see in my garden?

The following butterflies are some of the common species spotted in gardens. An overcast day is a particularly good time to see them up close because they won't be as active and stay still for longer!

Peacock butterfly

Peacock ©Rachel Scopes


Description: Deep-red with black marks and blue 'eyespots' (like a peacock’s tail feathers) on the forewings and hindwings.

When: January-December

Red Admiral butterfly

Red Admiral ©Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Red admiral

Description: Black with broad, red stripes on the hindwings and forewings, and white spots near the tips of the forewings.

When: January-December

Painted Lady

Painted Lady ©Scott Petrek

Painted lady

Description: Orange with black tips to the forewings that are adorned with white spots, and black spots on the hindwings and forewings.

When: April-October

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

Small Tortoiseshell ©Scott Petrek

Small tortoiseshell

Description: Reddish-orange with black and yellow markings on the forewings and a ring of blue spots around the edge of the wings.

When: January-December

Large White butterfly

©Zsuzsanna Bird

Large white

Description: White with prominent black tips to the forewings. Females have two black spots and a dash on each forewing. Plain, creamy-yellow underside.

When: April-October

Small White butterfly

©Les Binns

Small white

Description: White with light grey tips to the forewings. Females have one or two black spots on each forewing. Plain, creamy-yellow underside.

When: April-October

Green-veined White

©Jon Hawkins

Green-veined white

Description: White with grey-black tips and one or two black spots on the forewings. Thick, grey-green stripes on the underside.

When: April-October

Orange-tip Butterfly

Orange-tip ©Bob Coyle


Description: Males are white with bold orange patches on the forewings and light grey wingtips. Females are white with grey-black wingtips. Both have mottled grey-green undersides.

When: April-July

Meadow Brown

Meadow Brown ©David Longshaw

Meadow brown

Description: Brown with washed-out orange patches on the forewings. One black eyespot with a small white ‘pupil’ on each forewing.

When: June-September

Small Copper butterfly

Small Copper ©Bob Coyle

Small copper

Description: Bright orange forewings with dark brown spots and a thick, dark brown margin. Dark brown hindwings, banded with orange.

When: April-October

Holly Blue butterfly

Holly Blue ©Amy Lewis

Holly blue

Description: Bright blue with black spots on its silvery underside. Females have black wing edges.

When: April-September

Common Blue butterfly female

Female Common Blue ©Amy Lewis

Common blue

Description: Males have bright blue wings with a brown border and white fringe. Females are brown with a blue 'dusting'. Both have orange spots on their undersides.

When: May-October

How can I encourage butterflies to visit my garden?

Whether you have a small, city patch or acres of fields, you can encourage butterflies to visit your garden.

  • Plant nectar-rich flowers and shrubs like buddleia, ivy, daisies, verbana, forget-me-not, heather, lavender and primroses for them to feed on throughout the seasons – even a few flowers in a windowbox will do the trick!
  • Provide places for overwintering insects, such as piles of logs or leaves, climbing ivy or shrubs, or an ornamental butterfly house. You might find that small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies try to overwinter in your cosy, warm house. If you find one that’s woken up when it’s still very cold outside, gently take it to a cool shed or outhouse, so it can head back into dormancy. 
  • While most caterpillars are welcome in the garden, those of the large and small white butterflies (the ‘cabbage whites’) are famed for damaging vegetables. If they do become a pest, don’t use harmful pesticides, but try placing horticultural fleece over your crop to protect it.

To find out more about encouraging wildlife into your garden, take a look at more simple actions you can take, or visit our Wild About Gardens website: a joint initiative with the RHS, there's plenty of facts and tips to get you started.

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Child with marbled white butterfly - Adam Cormack

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Ringlet ©Guy Edwardes/2020VISION