Image of an orange tip butterfly on an open flower

Image: ORANGE TIP BUTTERFLY / Shutterstock

The sight of a butterfly is sure to put a smile on your face. These delicate, fluttering creatures bring beauty and colour into our lives, and are synonymous with sunshine and bright, warm days.

A butterfly’s colourful wings play an important role in their survival. The insects are seen as tasty morsels by a variety of predators, and their vibrant colours act as a deterrent, signalling to hunters that they are potentially toxic.

Patterns also act as a warning. Butterflies such as the peacock butterfly have large circular ‘eyepatches’ on their wings, which help to fool a potential attacker into thinking they are face-to-face with an altogether different creature.

Butterfly wings are actually made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny scales, arranged like roof tiles. Butterflies are cold-blooded, and their scales help them to regulate temperature by absorbing heat, as well as improving their aerodynamic efficiency. If a butterfly is handled, these fragile structures can become dislodged (you may see a fine dust on your fingers) so it’s best to avoid touching their wings at all costs.

There are 59 species of butterfly in the UK...!

Many of these species can be seen around Bedfordshire – in woodlands, meadows, heathlands and of course, your garden or local park.

As the weather starts to become warmer, one of the first species you might encounter is the brimstone butterfly. Brimstone are one of the longest-living British butterflies, surviving for around a year. They hibernate as adults in woodlands, concealing themselves in evergreen foliage until the temperature rises enough for them to emerge. They are fairly large, and very distinctive. Males are lemon-yellow, while females are greenish-white.

Image of a brimstone butterfly on a flower


If you want to attract brimstone butterflies to your garden, plant a few buckthorn or alder buckthorn – they make great hedges! These are the only two food plants of the caterpillar, so after mating in spring, the females will seek out these plants to lay their eggs on. Look on the underside of leaves for the eggs. After hatching, the caterpillars munch their way through a few leaves before pupating and emerging as adults during autumn, to begin the cycle again.

Another ‘early-bird’ butterfly to look out for is the orange-tip butterfly, usually on the wing from late March. As the name suggests, the white wings of the males are tipped with bright orange. Females are not quite as pretty, with grey-black wingtips. While the butterfly is at rest, you’ll be able to see an intricate green pattern on the underside of its wings.

They sometimes visit gardens, and you’ll often encounter in woodlands, meadows and hedgerows. They lay their eggs on garlic mustard and hedge mustard. Consuming the leaves of these plants apparently gives the caterpillars a foul, mustard taste – another effective predator deterrent!

By the time winter arrives, the caterpillars have pupated and spend winter as a chrysalis, which gives them a head start over other butterflies that spend winter as caterpillars or eggs.

If you’re heading out for a walk at one of our woodland sites on a sunny spring day, another species that you could encounter is the speckled wood butterfly. This active butterfly sports chocolatey-brown wings with creamy yellow spots and eye spots. It frequents sun-dappled glades and pathways through woodlands, and you’ll often see it basking on bramble leaves in the sunshine.

Males are fiercely territorial, and if another strays into its patch it will rise and the pair will spiral through the air until one becomes exhausted. The intruder is almost always the loser – butterflies get their energy from warm sunlight, so the attacker will already have lost heat and depleted his energy stores while flying to his sunbathing rival!

There are many other species you might encounter while exploring in Bedfordshire!

In the Forest of Marston Vale we’ve started surveying some of our Community Woodlands to find out the population and distribution of some of our most common (and some less common) butterfly species – if you’re interested in being part of our survey team please get in contact.

Help us plant and protect more woodland and habitats in the Forest

We're working hard to create habitat that benefits wildlife for now and in the future. To help us plant and maintain more woodlands in the Forest please consider joining with a small monthly donation:

Become a Friend of the Forest