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The silver-washed fritillary butterfly

David Chapman / 18 July 2014 ( 03 March 2021 )

Find out how to spot a silver-washed fritillary butterfly, the largest of the nine fritillary species living in the UK, and learn about their lifecycle.

Silver-washed fritillary butterfly
Silver-washed fritillary butterfly. Photograph by David Chapman.

Fritillary butterflies, including the silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia) belong to the family known as ‘Nymphalidae’.  These butterflies have only two pairs of proper legs, the third pair are small, brush-like and useless for walking. Another distinctive feature of this family can be seen in the stage when the caterpillar pupates.

Of the Nymphalidae family there are several sub-families, or groups, which occur in Britain and these include the red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and comma.  The group presenting us with the greatest identification challenge are the fritillaries which have nine species in Britain and, during July, the largest of these takes to the wing - the silver-washed fritillary.

The silver-washed fritillary has suffered a serious decline in Britain during the 1970s and 80s but has since undergone something of a recovery, which may be weather related. It is one of the more common fritillaries in Britain and can be found roughly to the south west of a line between Kent and North Wales though there are also isolated pockets in other parts such as the Lancashire/Cumbria coastal area.

Characteristics of the silver-washed fritillary

All of the fritillaries are characterised by the striking orange colour of their wings marked with a dark chequered pattern. The silver-washed fritillary, Argynnis paphia, is the largest of its family in Britain and has a wing span of about 75mm.

The silver-washed fritillary was named because on the underside of its greenish-coloured hind wing are four bands of silvery-white washed-out stripes. This pattern is quite different to the silvery-white spots found on other large fritillaries.

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Attracting silver-washed fritillary butterflies into the garden

Silver-washed fritillaries live in woodland glades and rides, and can be seen in gardens. They feed on nectar from a variety of flowers but those of brambles and thistles are very popular.  

Silver-washed fritillary life cycle

Egg laying time

Silver-washed fritillaries lay their eggs in summer, from late July to early September, on tree trunks near patches of the caterpillar's foodplant common dog-violet. When the female is looking for a place to lay her eggs she will fly low to the ground until she finds dog violets and then fly up to the nearest tree trunk to lay an egg about a metre above ground amongst the mosses for protection. Eggs are small, very pale yellow and ribbed, and hatch after about two weeks.

Silver-washed fritillary butterfly caterpillars

The larva of silver-washed fritillaries hatch in late summer. After emerging they will find a crevice in the bark and wrap themselves in silk to hibernate until the following spring. Once spring arrives they will emerge and seek out their food plant. Caterpillars are black with vivid yellow spikes.

Silver-washed fritillary butterfly chrysalis

Silver-washed fritillaries will pupate from late May onwards, and will stay in this form for two or three weeks. All butterflies in the Nymphalidae family suspend their pupa or chrysalis from a stem of vegetation using a silken pad created by the caterpillar and the pupae of many are angular in shape and decorated by golden metallic spots. 

It was a pupa of a Nymphalidae butterfly which was first referred to as a 'chrysalis' since, in Greek, this means ‘golden’.  Both the shape and decoration of this type of pupa is designed to give it better camouflage since it can look very much like a shrivelled leaf with dew drops on it.

Transformation into butterflies

The adult (imago) silver-washed fritillaries emerge from their cocoon in June and will be on the wing until the end of August, when they have laid the next generation. Adults feed on bramble, nectar and aphid honeydew.

Male and female silver-washed fritillary butterflies

Male and female of the species look the same, but their behaviour can give it away. Courtship is often obvious since the female will fly along a ride with the male fluttering around her.

Silver-washed fritillary and hibernation

Silver-washed fritillaries hibernate in their larval form. They hatch in late summer and find themselves a sheltered spot on the tree trunk their egg was laid on. The caterpillars wrap themselves in silk and will not emerge until the following spring. 

Silver-washed fritillary butterfly lifespan

Silver-washed fritillary live as butterflies for just a few short weeks in mid-summer, but their pupa form lives for around nine months, with most of that time spent dormant over winter. When you consider the various stages the entire lifecycle can take about one year.

Find out more about British butterflies, including butterfly photography tips and the best plants for a wildlife-friendly garden

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.