May 2014 - Orange Tip Butterfly

mottled under-side of the wing of the orange tip butterfly  female (no orange tips evident)

One of the joys of early spring is the sight of the orange tip butterfly flitting along roadside verges, meadows, gardens and woodland glades around Bawburgh, as it searches for the nectar of its food plants, commonly lady's smock, garlic mustard and honesty. The male orange tip is unmistakable with bright orange tips to its otherwise white wings. The female does not have orange tips and when flying can be mistaken for other white butterflies. However, both sexes have green mottled under-sides to their wings which can be identified when the butterflies settle. The orange tip to the wings of the male is thought to be an example of warning colouration to predators, indicating that the butterfly is not particularly palatable, the result of an accumulation of mustard oils from the larval food plant. The female, being more stationary does not need the warning colouration. 

Orange tip butterflies emerge from pupae early to mid-April and are seen flying until mid-July. The males actively seek out the females to mate, and fly for long periods of time without resting, even to feed. The females are not so active and will seek out the food plants on which to lay their eggs, and stay in their vicinity, waiting for a mate. Egg laying is completed by the end of June, with eggs laid singly. The female is thought to be able to detect with her feet if an egg has already been laid on a flower stalk, and will go elsewhere to lay an egg if one has. The reason for this becomes evident as caterpillars which hatch June/July, eat their own eggshell, and then any other egg that they may come across. Caterpillars are fiercely competitive when it comes to food, and will be cannibalistic to any other orange tip caterpillar if encountered. Usually only one caterpillar survives per flower head. The main source of food for the caterpillar is the developing seed pod, although it will feed on the flowers and leaves.

Male orange tip butterfly


When at rest the caterpillar lines itself with the seed pod, and in this way is excellently camouflaged. When it is ready to pupate it may travel quite long distances in search of a suitable site. The pupa develops upright on a plant stem usually in dense vegetation or other suitably protected vertical surface, attached by silk threads. The pupa over-winters, emerging as a butterfly in spring. 

This butterfly is not considered endangered. The main threat is loss of habitat which reduces availability of food plants.

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