With its bright orange, frilly wings the comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) is one of the most attractive species to visit our gardens in the summer. It is particularly appealing for two reasons, one its distinctive shape and the other its striking colour.
When the comma spreads its wings to bask in the sun it reveals a beautiful combination of orange and brown markings a little reminiscent of the fritillary butterfly family. Look carefully at the comma’s wings and you will see that not only is it colourful but that it also has an intricate outline.
It isn’t immediately obvious why this butterfly should have evolved such a sculpted shape but when its wings are closed all is revealed. The dark brown of it’s under wing combined with this unusual shape helps the comma appear nothing more than a dead leaf; a fantastic piece of deception and camouflage.
Look closely at the butterfly’s under wing and you will see the comma-shaped white mark in the centre of its hind wing which is the reason for its common name.
Attracting comma butterflies into the garden
Commas will come to the garden to feed on nectar-rich plants; buddleia and verbena are two that work well for us. Despite us having a nettle patch I have never seen any commas egg-laying in our garden; if you aren’t keen on growing nettles, and I can understand that, then try hops, currants, sallow or elm, all of which are food plants of the comma’s caterpillars.#
Find out how to photograph the butterflies in your garden
Comma butterfly life cycle
Egg laying time
The comma lays its eggs on stinging nettles nettle, but can also be spotted on elm, hops and thistle. You might even find them on your blackcurrant or gooseberry bush in the garden. Commas can have two broods in a year, the first in April and a second in July, and eggs are laid singly or in small clusters.
Comma butterfly caterpillars
The comma caterpillars emerge in late April and May (or August for the second brood) and begin to feed on the parent plant. Comma caterpillars have a distinctive spiky shape. Their bodies are predominantly black and orange with white markings that make them resemble bird droppings. After about 5 weeks they will form a chrysalis.
Comma butterfly chrysalis
In June and late August/September the brimstone caterpillars form chrysalides that look like brown dried up leaves speckled with pale spots that dangle from the bottom of branches. The pupa stage lasts about 2 weeks.
Transformation into butterflies
Adult comma butterflies emerge from their chrysalis summer or autumn, depending on their brood. They're most commonly seen at the edge of woodlands.
Comma butterfly and hibernation
Adult comma have a variation. While most comma butterflies have a dark underside and hibernate over winter there is a variant with a light underside known as hutchinsoni, after Victorian lepidopterist Emma Hutchinson.
These hutchinsoni variants do not hibernate, but instead breed so there is a second flush of dark-winged adult commas in late summer, which go on to hibernate in woodland and emerge again in March. The darker wing colour helps them stay hidden among dried out leaves and wood.
Comma butterfly lifespan
The lifespan of comma butterflies varies. The light hutchinsoni variant has a short lifespan of just a few months, while the dark late summer form can go on to hibernate until the following March, making their lifespan about 8 months. Whether a comma will be a dark or light variant is determined by the daylight, with broods that hatch before midsummer (while the days are getting longer) being paler, and the brood hatched while the days get shorter being darker.
Read more about British butterflies, including other hibernating species such as peacock butterflies and brimstone butterflies.