Whites (Family Pieridae)

Descriptions & images of the 6 'Whites' found in Hampshire

The 'Whites' include two of our most familiar butterflies - the Large and Small White, whose liking (or at least that of their larvae) for garden brassicae such as cabbages means they are not regarded as gardeners friends. The family Pieridae, to which these species belong, also includes several other UK species which at first sight might be thought to belong to a more exotic family, being predominantly yellow in colour, having splashes of bright orange or unusual wingshapes. Whilst the flight of many of the whites is slow and flapping (and especially the Wood White which is not resident in Hampshire) others are powerful fliers, demonstrated by their arrival on our shores each year as migrants. 

Occurrence (distribution based on 1km squares) and abundance (total population) trend data, extracted from the report "The State Of The UK's Butterflies 2015" published by Butterfly Conservation, is shown for each species and indicates the change in distribution and population during the last four decades (1976 - 2014) at UK national level. 

Brimstone - Gonepteryx rhamni

Wingspan: ~60-75mm 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +20%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +1% 

 

The Brimstone's curved 'gothic' wing shape distinguishes it from all other UK species - it is also the only one of our 'whites' to hibernate as an adult. Sunny days in March will see Brimstone's emerging from hibernation, heralding the start of spring in 'butterfly speak'. It is widespread in Hampshire and throughout most of England except the far north. The Brimstone favours woodland and hedgerows where its foodplants of buckthorn or alder buckthorn are found, but they make forays along waysides into the outskirts of towns and gardens. Only the male Brimstone is unmistakably yellow, the females being much paler, and can from a distance be mistaken for a Large White. 

When to see: There is only one generation per year. Following hibernation, the butterflies may be seen from March through until June, with the new generation on the wing from late July until September before hibernation. 

Where to see: Woodlands are the best place for this species, Bentley Wood being a good example. Other good sites include Noar Hill, Magdalen Hill Down, Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure), Bentley Station Meadow  and Yew Hill. 

Clouded Yellow - Colias croceus 

Wingspan: ~52-62mm 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +84%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +734% 

 

The Clouded Yellow is considered as a regular migrant to the UK, with migrant arrivals in May or June in southern counties gradually spreading north. Climate change has resulted in the species being recorded more frequently during the last decades and there is also evidence that it is surviving our winter on the south coast, so it may soon be reclassified as a UK resident species. Nevertheless, its numbers here are heavily dependent on butterflies arriving from the Continent and breeding here in the summer and again in the autumn. In view of the dependence on migration, numbers of this species can be very variable, with really good years occurring about once per decade on average. The sight of Clouded Yellows, with their deep yellow colouring flying powerfully over chalk downland or feeding in clover fields is a lovely addition to the British summer, however they are also great wanderers and hence as singletons may be encountered almost anywhere. The larvae feed on leguminous plants such as clover or lucerne.

When to see: Migrating butterflies normally arrive during May or June, producing offspring from late July, with sightings recorded even into October. Late August and September is probably the best time to look for the species.

Where to see: As indicated, numbers of Clouded Yellows vary significantly from year to year. Chalk downland sites such as Old Winchester Hill and Portsdown Hill typically offer the best chance of seeing this species. Clover fields are also good places to look. 

Green-veined White - Pieris napi 

Wingspan: ~40-51mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +5%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -7% 

   

The Green-veined White is one of the most widely distributed and successful species in UK, reaching as far north as the Orkneys. Although superficially very similar to the Small White, the delicate underwing vein pattern shown in the photo 3 above allows it to be easily distinguished when at rest. The butterfly is essentially a rural species but can also be found in a variety of habitats, including woodland, hedgerows, meadows, lanes, riverbanks and occasionally gardens. Dampness in its habitat seems to be a prerequisite, so not surprisingly it does not fare so well in warm, dry years. The larvae feed on crucifers such as charlock, garlic mustard and cuckoo flower. 

When to see: There are two generations per year which almost merge. Hence the butterfly may be encountered almost at any time between late April through until early September.

Where to see: In view of its adaptability, the species can be encountered almost anywhere in rural habitats, which are not too dry. Alice Holt (Straits Inclosure), Whiteley Pastures and Noar Hill are examples of good sites, but there are many others. 

Large White- Pieris brassicae 

Wingspan: ~57-68mm 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -3%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -30% 

   

The Large White is one of our most conspicuous species, being distributed almost throughout UK, including Shetland. Most people know this species as the 'Cabbage White' - a butterfly disliked by gardeners because brassicas, including cabbages and Brussels sprouts are the staple diet of its larvae (but also turnips, radishes and nasturtiums!) which hatch in mass from clusters of yellow eggs.  Fewer people will know that the UK population of Large Whites is reinforced by migration from continental Europe. The butterflies are known to be able to land on the sea surface and then take off again without difficulty. Whilst the Large White has a liking for cultivated ground including allotments and gardens, it can be encountered almost anywhere. 

When to see: Usually two generations per year, the first emerging in mid/late April until late June, the second from late July until late September. 

Where to see: Since this species is normally so visible on cultivated ground and in gardens, no specific locations are necessary. 

Orange Tip - Anthocharis cardimines 

Wingspan: ~40-51mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +8%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +10% 

 

The delicate Orange Tip is very much a butterfly of spring, however in the south of England it is considered to be less numerous than it used to be, whilst its northward range now extends well into Scotland. Only the male has the bright orange tips to its wings, the female having instead a darkened wing tip. The mottled white/green undersides of both sexes provide excellent camouflage when roosting with closed wings. The Orange Tip is a rural species, favouring waysides and lanes, hedgerows, damp meadows and open glades in woodland, The larvae feed on cruciferous plants such as garlic mustard and cuckoo-flower. 

When to see: There is only one generation per year, from mid/late April until mid June. 

Where to see: The species will be seen throughout Hampshire in suitable habitat. Noar hill is a good site. 

Small White - Pieris rapae 

Wingspan: ~37-57mm 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -8%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -25% 

 

The Small White has much in common with its larger cousin, the Large White, being widely distributed (though not in extreme north of Scotland), having continental migrants to swell the indigenous population, and of course it is also a familiar garden species, whose larvae also feed on brassicas. The larvae aren't so gregarious as those of the Large White - in fact the eggs are laid singly rather than in clusters. Like the Large White, the butterfly can be encountered almost anywhere but especially in gardens and fields of flowering crops such as oil seed rape. 

When to see: Two generations per year, with flight periods very similar to the Large White, the first from mid/late April until late June, the second from late July until late September. 

Where to see: Like the Large White, since this species is normally so visible, in gardens and amongst crops, no specific locations are necessary.