Butterflies of Britain
Family - LYCAENIDAE
subfamily - LYCAENINAE
Lycaena phlaeas, Hungerford, Berkshire ©
The Small Copper is a very
widespread species, occurring in Canada, the eastern United States,
the Canary Isles, almost all of Europe including sub-arctic areas of
Scandinavia, and across temperate Asia as far east as Japan. It also
occurs across much of Africa, from the Atlas mountains and north
African grasslands, south to Kenya and Malawi.
2nd brood female, ab. caeruleapunctata,
Stockbridge Down ©
Both sexes are subject to
variation regarding the size of the black spots on the forewings. 1st
brood specimens often have a row of tiny sapphire blue spots on the
upperside hindwings - this variety is known as
In September 2009, I was
lucky to find a beautiful aberration known as
schmidtii, which arises periodically in populations following
the re-emergence of a recessive gene. No photograph can do justice to
this form of the butterfly, whose shining silvery-white wings reflect
iridescent hues of green, blue, yellow or orange when seen at certain
angles in bright sunlight.
Lycaena phlaeas, 3rd brood male, ab.
schmidtii, Surrey ©
The Small Copper cannot be
mistaken for any other British butterfly. In Europe however there are
several other Lycaena species - females
of hippothoe and
tityrus are both similar to phlaeas,
so a good field guide is a necessity for less experienced butterfly
In the British Isles the Small Copper occurs in many different
habitats including heaths, chalk and limestone grasslands, sand
dunes, cliff tops, railway embankments, old quarries, woodland rides
and clearings, hay meadows, pastures and almost anywhere else where
the larval foodplants grow. The butterflies tend to be localised
within each habitat. They usually breed in sheltered hollows, or at
the bottom of sunny slopes, where vegetation is sparse, and areas of
bare ground are available for basking.
3rd brood male, Stockbridge Down, Hampshire ©
Britain and most of Europe the Small Copper normally produces 2 or 3
broods a year, depending on locality and weather conditions. There
is little synchrony between sites however, with the result that the
butterfly can be seen at anytime from early April until late
October. The 2nd & 3rd broods are always more numerous than the 1st,
and can produce populations of 200 or more adults at the best sites
in southern England. In northern Scandinavia the species is
single-brooded. In the Canary Islands and north Africa it is
continuously brooded, producing 5 or more generations a year.
eggs look like tiny white golf balls, and are normally laid on
sheep's sorrel Rumex acetosella or
common sorrel R. acetosa. I have also
watched females oviposit on other Rumex
species including curled dock crispus,
broad-leaved dock obtusifolius,
clustered dock conglomeratus and wood
dock sanguineus. The plants selected
are always in sheltered sunlit positions, often at the base of
hills. A female will typically hop about exploring the edges of
rabbit scrapes or other areas of bare soil until she finds a
suitable plant. She will lay a single egg on the midrib of the upper
surface of a leaf, and then move on to search for another plant.
Sometimes a particular leaf will attract several different females,
or be used on repeat visits by a single female: In October 2009 e.g.
I made a search of dock and sorrel leaves at a site in West Sussex.
I found that small leaves of clustered dock which had turned red
with the approach of autumn had up to 5 eggs laid on each, but that
healthy green leaves on the same plants were barren. Furthermore,
none of the numerous common sorrel plants on the same sunlit patch
of ground bore a single egg.
After laying perhaps a dozen eggs on various plants females go into
'nectaring mode', and spend several minutes visiting flowers in the
vicinity. This is usually followed by a resting phase during which
they bask on vegetation or on bare ground before resuming
Lycaena phlaeas, ovipositing on sorrel, Stockbridge Down,
The larvae are
nocturnal. When young they feed on the lower cuticle of the leaves,
leaving small characteristic curved grooves which are visible from
above. When older they nibble small oval holes out of the leaves,
and turning over suspicious looking leaves often reveals the plump
green larva beneath. The progeny of the final brood of the season
hibernate as 2nd or 3rd instar larvae at the base of the foodplants.
These larvae awaken in early spring to resume feeding, and pupate in
late March. When the larva when ready to pupate it attaches itself
with a silk girdle to a dead leaf at the base of the foodplant. The
pupa is pale olive brown, shiny, with darker speckling. The pupal
stage lasts about 3 weeks.
Lycaena phlaeas, 1st brood male, Martin Down NNR, Hampshire ©
In spring the
butterflies often bask on bare ground, periodically visiting various
wild flowers for nectar. They strongly favour daisies in preference
to other nectar sources, but also visit ground ivy, dandelions,
buttercups and blackthorn blossom. Summer brood adults visit
fleabane, ragwort, yarrow, marjoram and small scabious.
Lycaena phlaeas, Magdalen Hill Down, Hampshire ©
Males are territorial,
and immediately fly up to chase any small insect which enters their
domain. If a male intercepts another male, the pair engage in a
frenetic battle, twisting and spiralling in tight circles until one
of them throws in the towel and flies off. Often a male intercepts a
female that has landed on a flower - if she has already mated she
signals her unreceptiveness by rapidly fluttering her half-open
wings, while walking rapidly down the stem to the base of the plant.
The male usually accepts this rejection signal and flies off in
search of another female.
When a virgin female is
intercepted, a very rapid zigzag chase takes place, after which the
female immediately settles among grasses or sometimes on a bush,
where copulation takes place. I have often found copulated Small
Coppers in late morning. They are reluctant to fly while copulating
and prefer to remain on flower heads or foliage, with the wings of
both sexes held half open.
Lycaena phlaeas, female, Cissbury Ring,
In dull weather and at
night the butterflies roost singly on low herbage, grass heads or
flowerheads, either sitting upright, or in a head-downwards posture.
Lycaena phlaeas at roost, Hungerford, Berkshire ©