An admirable garden butterfly

Red Admiral Butterfly on Snowdrops, Image by Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. This week, it's all about butterflies! Rowena shares the beauty of one of our common garden visitors, The Red Admiral Butterfly, and reveals how we can encourage them to visit.
Red Admiral Butterfly in a colour array of flowers and plants

Red Admiral Butterfly in a colour border, Image by Rowena Millar

After dreaming up the title for this blog as a vague sort of pun, I found an article by David Chapman in Saga magazine online explaining that the name 'red admiral' is genuinely ‘a corruption of the original 18th-century name 'red admirable'’. This makes perfect sense to me, as the patterns of this butterfly brighten the mood and bring a bold splash of colour to any scene.

I was wondering yesterday, whilst watching a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) in the garden, why people love butterflies so much, as opposed to most other insects. I went on to surmise that the way we use patterns, paints and dyes to create colourful clothes, flags and banners is connected to our appreciation of bird and butterfly wings.

The Red Admiral is particularly distinctive in red, white and black. If you look closely, you will see that the dark brown inner parts of the wings look as soft as velvet and are endearingly furry.

The underwings are beautiful in a slightly subtler way. Seen from the side, the top wing is partly black with a thick band of red splodges (not a technical term), and another band of white splodges above it, like the upperside. The two lower wings, however, look brown, delicately marbled with blacks, greys and perhaps hints of rich autumn colours. Seen very close up, they look like a patterned tapestry rug.

From September through to next summer

In September, you will find Red Admirals sipping the nectar of the last buddleia flowers, or feasting on late-summer garden plants such as sedums and Verbena bonariensis. Like the last of the wasps, these butterflies are partial to fruits, including apples and blackberries. I shall be leaving a couple of old pears out for them as well as windfalls and apple cores.

The largest garden Red Admiral gatherings I’ve seen have been along the top of our south-facing hedge, on clusters of ivy flowers in September/October – the abundant yellow-green pom-pom heads (or umbels) are generous providers of pollen and nectar.

This butterfly may still appear on sunny days long into a mild winter, although it probably won’t survive to spring. It belongs to the Nymphalidae – the largest butterfly family in terms of species and often in wing size too. Nymphalids are known as ‘brush-footed’ butterflies, because some have brush-like hairs on two small forelegs, which they curl up while standing on the other four legs. The tortoiseshell and fritillary butterflies belong to this group, along with the emperors, and the Monarch and the Painted Lady, both famous for spectacular migrations.

The Red Admiral is a migrant too. The first flush arrive in spring, having flown over from the Mediterranean or even North Africa to breed here, the females laying single eggs on the tips of nettles and the caterpillars making individual silky tents that fasten down the stinging leaves. Other foodplants are Small Nettle (Urtica urens) and Pellitory-of-the Wall (Parietaria judaica), another nettle family member which can be found growing out of cracks in walls and banks, including old churches and ruined buildings.

The caterpillar is more inconspicuous – grey or grey-brown to black, with little pale markings a bit like chevrons or a pale zigzag stripe low down along each side, and spiky tufts.

Red Admiral Caterpillars on a plant

Red Admiral Caterpillars, Image by Adrian Langdon

The life cycle is quite short (compared to a dragonfly, for instance), with adults emerging around August, when they are joined by a fresh batch of migrants flying in from the south. It is interesting to guess which butterflies have freshly pupated. This summer I noticed a striking difference between the gorgeous rich colours of some and the rather battered appearance of others that had damaged their wings with time, weather conditions and the effort and turbulence of transit.

Make your garden a butterfly hotspot

Although the Red Admiral is a species of low conservation concern, we should never be complacent and take wildlife for granted. We have seen a dramatic decline in general insect populations in recent decades and it is up to us to turn the situation around.

Encourage red admirals to visit your garden... by growing nectar-rich flowers all year round!

To encourage red admirals to visit your garden, ensure that there is a long flowering season by growing nectar-rich flowers all year round (this should be possible in Cornwall). I photographed a Red Admiral on snowdrops in February last year. Include buddleia to attract large numbers of butterflies at the peak of the summer season. For September onwards, allow ivy to grow tall enough to flower, and for the borders, grow late summer flowers such as Verbena bonariensis and Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower). Remember that the larval foodplant is the nettle, along with Pellitory-of-the-Wall (Parietaria judaica) and if you have a place for a patch of these, they will benefit a host of other insects too.

Red Admiral Butterflies and Comma Butterflies feeding on ivy

Red Admirals and a Comma Butterfly feeding on ivy along the hedge, Image by Rowena Millar

Red Admirals may attempt to overwinter in places such as sheds and log piles, so leave a quiet corner for them and other invertebrates. Perhaps you will spot the first overwintering survivor, or the first brave migrant to have flown across the sea, early in 2021.

Visit our Red Admiral page to learn more about this fascinating butterfly, as well as how to identify them and protect this species.

David Chapman is known and celebrated at Cornwall Wildlife Trust for his involvement in the Trust’s Photographic Group, as a former Trustee, a Wild Cornwall calendar originator, a speaker and much more. He is an award-winning photographer, author of many wildlife books and regular magazine articles. Visit David Chapman's website to find out more about him and his career.