Butterflies of Britain
Family - PIERIDAE
subfamily - PIERINAE
tribe - ANTHOCHARIDINI
Anthocharis cardamines, male, Dunsfold,
© Adrian Hoskins
The Orange tip,
like the primrose and the cuckoo, is a true herald of spring. It is
one of the very few species that are on the increase in Britain,
having spread northwards in recent decades, whilst still remaining
widespread and abundant in the south.
There is virtually no variation in the colouring or patterning of
Orange tips, but there is
undersized specimens are often seen.
The smaller butterflies
that have fed on cuckoo flower - these plants
barely enough foliage to sustain them,
it is possible that they literally run out of food and pupate early.
Anthocharis cardamines, male at
dandelion, Stansted Forest, Sussex ©
female Orange tips can easily be confused with the Dappled Whites
Euchloe ausonia and E. simplonia
although both of these are more heavily marked with green on the
underside, and have more angular forewings.
Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere there are
several other Anthocharis species
including cethura from California,
sara from Alaska and bieti from
Tibet and Siberia. Zegris fausti from
Turkestan is also similar in appearance but has a strongly curved
forewing costa. The 40 African Colotis
"Orange tips" have plain undersides, and are only distantly related.
Anthocharis cardamines is found throughout most of Europe,
but is absent from much of the Iberian peninsula and from sub-arctic
areas of Scandinavia. It's range extends eastward across temperate
Asia to Amurland and Japan.
southern Britain the
Orange tip can be encountered in almost
any habitat, but is most
commonly seen in damp sheltered areas
where it's larval foodplants grow. These include riverbanks,
ditches, dykes, hedgerows, damp meadows,
fens, railway cuttings, woodland glades and country lanes.
The butterflies wander almost randomly across the countryside,
unlike in northern England and Scotland where they breed in
localised colonies, usually close to river banks.
Europe the species is found in a much wider range of habitats
including marshes, moorlands, arid scrub, and on alpine meadows and
pastures at altitudes up to 2100m.
Anthocharis cardamines, male, Evington
meadow, Leicestershire ©
The orange tips on the male's
forewings are believed to be aposematic, acting as a warning
to birds that the butterflies contain toxins
( mustard oils ) derived from the
larval foodplants, garlic mustard and cuckoo flower.
Females lack the orange - they lead much more sedentary and
inconspicuous lives so possibly have less need to "advertise"
tips usually begin to emerge in mid April, but can appear as early as
the end of March if the spring is exceptionally warm. The peak flight
season for both sexes is early May. By the end of May the males have
disappeared and just a few females remain. In Europe the flight season
is longer, with the butterflies still on the wing in early July at
moderate altitudes in the Alps.
Weather conditions during the flight season have a great affect on
butterfly abundance the following year. In early seasons a high
percentage of eggs are laid on cuckoo flower
Cardamine pratensis but in late seasons the majority are laid
on garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata.
Larval survival is higher on garlic mustard, probably because it
produces larger and more profuse seed pods and leaves for the larvae
in a late season tends to result in higher numbers of adults the
Anthocharis cardamines - the egg on the
right is freshly laid, that on the left is about 3 days old.
Although cuckoo flower and garlic mustard are the primary larval
foodplants, females occasionally oviposit on charlock, hedge mustard
or watercress; but regardless of the plant chosen, the eggs are always
laid singly, and always in the same position - on the flower stalks.
more than one egg can be found per plant, but this is unusual, as the
butterflies seem able to detect the presence of eggs that have already
The eggs are skittle-shaped and greenish-white in colour when first
laid, but turn to orange after a day or two, and
then finally to grey.
Anthocharis cardamines Stansted Forest,
The larvae hatch after about a week and feed at first on the flowers
of the foodplants. When
older they move on to feed on the leaves, flower stalks and
seedpods. Fully grown larvae are
pale bluish green with a white lateral line, below which the colour
changes to dark green. They habitually
rest on the upper surface of the seedpods where they are superbly
camouflaged. Despite their disguise however many are eaten by
spiders and birds. They are also parasitised by the Tachinid fly
Phryxe vulgaris, which also attacks the
larvae of several other butterflies.
Orange tip larvae are noted for their cannibalistic tendencies. This
may have evolved because
some of the larval foodplants ( e.g.
cuckoo flower ) only produce enough seed pods and
foliage to sustain a single larva through to full development.
Caterpillars which have been feeding on cuckoo flower leave the
plants when ready to pupate, and attach themselves with a silken
girdle to a nearby woody stem. Larvae on
garlic mustard however often pupate on the stems of the plant.
The distinctive boomerang-shaped pupa
cannot be mistaken for any other species. It
occurs in two colour forms - pale
green, or brownish. The
latter is by far the commoner. In 2009, I
made a quick search of a clump of garlic mustard in a Sussex
woodland, and found 5 pupae, of which 4 were the normal brownish
form, and one of the green form. One pupa was parasitised, another
had been nibbled by a small mammal ( probably a pigmy shrew ), and
the remainder were healthy. All were attached to the stems of dead
garlic mustard plants.
Anthocharis cardamines, pupa ( normal
form ) on garlic mustard stem ©
Anthocharis cardamines, pupa ( green form
) on garlic mustard stem ©
Orange tips begin emerging in early April, followed about a week later
by the females. As with
butterfly species, female Orange tips must mate within a couple of
days of emergence, after which they lose their attraction to the males.
staggered emergence is nature's way of ensuring that there are plenty
of males available when the females emerge.
seen in flight, female Orange tips
difficult to distinguish from Green-veined
Whites, but when they settle, the beautiful mottled green markings on
the underside hindwings make them easy to identify. The
actually an illusion
caused by a mottling of black and yellow scales. The markings are an
extremely effective camouflage which works against a variety of
backgrounds - the butterflies are
difficult to spot
rest on bracken fronds, hazel leaves,
white flowers of garlic mustard or umbellifers.
tips visit a wide variety of
flowers including bluebell, bugle, wood anemone, blackthorn, primrose,
ground ivy, celandine, hawthorn, garlic mustard, early purple orchid,
vetch, dog violet, colt's foot, dandelion
nectaring or settling for short periods, they normally keep their
wings half open. This has the effect of trapping a tiny pocket of warm
air over the thorax,
aids rapid body warming. In hazy weather or late evening sunshine
however Orange tips often
bask for long periods with the wings
On sunny days males
in search of females.
the sexes meet copulation takes place
without any prenuptial ritual. If a female that has
mated is intercepted by a male, she
signals her disinterest by settling on a leaf, then outspreading her
wings and raising her abdomen as illustrated below. This tells the
male that she is unreceptive, and makes it physically impossible for
him to copulate.
Anthocharis cardamines, female ( right ) raising abdomen as a
rejection signal ©
tips roost openly, even in wet or windy weather, and can be found at
dusk and dawn settled on the flower heads of cuckoo flower, garlic
mustard, bluebells or umbellifers, or on hazel or nettle leaves, in
sheltered and lightly wooded situations.
Anthocharis cardamines, female at roost
on hazel, Stansted Forest, Sussex ©