I spotted this lovely little creature whilst on my meadow walk for day 43 of 365 Days Wild. I’ve caught brief glimpses of this butterfly before, but this was the first time I’ve ever actually got close enough to identify it.
Meet the Small Copper butterfly.
As this was the first time I’ve ever identified one of these, I thought I’d find out some information about them.
As well as Small Copper, their common names also include American Copper and Common Copper. Their full scientific name is Lycaena phlaeas. This means that they belong to the Lycaenid family, a family name that translates to ‘gossamer-winged’. There are two possible origins given for their specific name of phlaeas. It could be derived from the Greek phlego, meaning “to burn up”, or it could be from the Latin floreo, meaning “to flourish”. Both seem to fit this beautiful little creature well.
It was first described in Historia Insectorum by John Ray, published in 1710, five years after the author’s death. This book, written in Latin, describes what are believed to be 48 UK species. The Small Copper is one of them.
With its small wingspan of only 2.6cm-3.6cm and its bright copper wings, the Small Copper butterfly is quite an easily identifiable species. Or it is once it settles, at least. I’d glimpsed this one flitting past on the wing quite a few times before I do finally got a chance to look at it properly. It was flying so swiftly that any sort of identification before then was impossible.
To identify it, look for bright orange forewings with eight or nine dark brown spots and a thick, dark brown margin. The hind wings are dark brown, edged with a band of orange. Both wings are outlined with a thin edging of white.
This little butterfly remains widespread throughout the UK, though it has declined within its ranges over the 20th Century. It can be found across southern and central England, Wales and Ireland, with patchier distribution in the northern counties and Scotland.
It has a wide variety of habitats, including chalk or unimproved grassland, waste ground, old quarries, embankments, road verges, heathland, moorland, and woodland clearings. It favours warm, dry conditions.
Small Copper caterpillars mainly feed on Common Sorrel, which the meadow has lots of, and on Sheep’s Sorrel, which I haven’t yet identified anywhere. They can also be found on dock, and the meadow does have a lot of this! Adult butterflies feed on Ragwort and Thistle. Yep, we have a fair amount of those, too, though not quite as much as some plants. The one I spotted seemed to be enjoying the Knapweed.
They’re active from to April through to October, with 2 or 3 generations a year, depending on the weather. In a particularly good year there can even be a 4th generation, with the adults occasionally seen flying still in mid-November.
The adult butterflies lay their eggs on the upperside of (usually) Sorrel leaves. When they hatch, the caterpillars move to the underside of the leaf. From there they munch their way through the bottom-most layers of leaf, leaving only a thin, almost transparent layer of the tough outer epidermis as a ‘window’ above them. The caterpillars are a distinctive green and pink.
They overwinter as caterpillars and pupate at the end of April or early May as the 1st generation of a new year. This first pupation takes place in the grassland leaf litter. It is thought that the pupae may be tended to by ants.
You’ll usually only see one or two at a time, as the males are very territorial, but good sites can support more. Colonies tend to remain small, with only a few adults being on the wing at the same time. The males are very territorial and aggressive. They’ll chase rival males and even other insects away. They wait for the approach of females, who they then pursue. They’re often spotted basking on bare ground or nectaring on a wide variety of flowers.
If you’re trying to snap photographs of them – which I usually am – helpfully, they often return to their former perch once any interlopers have been dealt with. They are, however, easily disturbed. I only managed to take these three pictures before it darted away to a new perch and vanished from sight. Hopefully I manage to snap a few more soon.
If you’d like to read more about the Small Copper butterfly, these are the websites I used to collect my information: