The orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a white butterfly with orange tips on its wings, is one of the earliest butterflies of the year.
Before the end of March we can be sure to have seen our first bluebells of the year. Since their development occurs throughout the early spring the unfurling of their first flowers is quite predictable.
The emergence of the first butterflies of spring is far more variable but just a couple of warm days in March or April can provide enough incentive for a few species to take flight.
The first butterflies to be seen each year are ones that survive the winter by hibernating in adult form, such species as the brimstone and peacock can even be seen on mild winter days. Not many butterflies are born from pupae as early as April but the orange-tip butterfly usually manages this feat, so if you spot an orange and white butterfly between April and June you've seen the male orange-tip. There is no other white and orange butterfly in the UK, although other species have orange mixed with browns and blacks, including the gatekeeper and the small tortoiseshell.
Attracting orange-tip butterflies into the garden
If you would like to encourage this butterfly in your garden then sow some seeds of the cuckoo flower or lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis). This flower grows best in damp meadows and it is the food-plant of the orange-tip butterfly's caterpillars.
Orange-tip butterfly life cycle
Egg laying time
Orange-tip butterflies lay their eggs in May and June. The eggs are small and greenish white, turning orange as they mature, and the larva hatch after one to two weeks. They are laid singly.
Orange-tip butterfly caterpillars
The caterpillars, or larva, hatch in June to early July to feed on their empty egg case and the developing seed pods of its host plant, and is known to turn cannibalistic and eat its broodmates. Orange-tip caterpillars are ochre when they first hatch, but turn green with a mottled black pattern and fine white hairs as they mature, which takes up to four weeks.
Orange-tip butterfly chrysalis
From late June onwards the orange-tip forms a distinctive, pointy pupa resembling a thorn that starts off green and turns brown. They overwinter in this form.
Transformation into butterflies
The orange-tip emerges from the pupa with a wingspan of 45-50mm. Adult orange-tips are known to drink nectar from bluebells, brambles, dandelions, garlic mustard and red campion, among other plants. Adults are seen on the wing from April into early June.
Male and female orange-tip butterflies
The male orange-tip is one of our most striking butterflies. His white fore-wings have an obvious fiery orange band across their tips which can be clearly seen in flight, with a thin band of black on the very tip. Females lack the orange tips but do have the narrow black tips, making them easily mistaken for a small white butterfly. Both male and female have intricately marked mossy green and white hind-wings which provide useful camouflage when they are at rest.
Orange-tip butterflies and hibernation
Orange-tips hibernate in pupae carefully concealed on the upright stems of plants. This is the form they spend most of their life in, emerging the following spring to start the cycle again.
Orange-tip butterfly lifespan
Orange-tip butterflies have short lifespans of just a few weeks in their adult (imago) form but are long-lived if you consider the pupa stage, which they can be in from June to April or May the following year.
Read more about British butterflies, including how to photograph butterflies in your garden