Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeus)

SizeWingspan: 24 – 30 mm

Common (not threatened – Europe).

One of the UK’s smaller butterflies, the small copper makes up for its diminutive size by being one of the most territorial and aggressive in the family. The butterfly is extremely variable in its colouration, but most specimens are a dark burnished orange with darker bronze upper hindwings and bands at the end of the upper forewings. There are also bronze-coloured spots on the upper forewings and, though difficult to see in the field, some individuals have small patches of sapphire blue scales on the upper hindwing.

Small copper butterflies are widespread and common across the UK, and most of Europe including the larger islands in the Mediterranean. It is also found in North Africa, through Asia to Japan, and also in North America.

This butterfly can be seen in almost any habitat with warm, dry basking places. It has been recorded on heaths, grassland and city parks, along coastal cliffs, dunes and on moorland.

Small coppers appear on the wing in May and, in warm years, can still be seen in October. The eggs are laid on dock, sheep’s sorrel and common sorrel, the caterpillars feeding on the surface of the plant’s leaves. One way of spotting their presence is to inspect the leaves for characteristic surface damage. The caterpillars are green and covered with short white hairs, which help to camouflage them from predators. They overwinter as pupae and emerge as adult butterflies the following spring.

Male small coppers are one of the most active of all butterflies. They regularly chase away other butterflies from their chosen piece of territory, returning to the same basking spot to continue their watch for passing females. As adults, the butterflies will take nectar from a wide variety of grassland and meadow flowers, and are sometimes seen in suburban gardens.

Although believed to have declined in numbers during the twentieth century, small coppers are not thought to be threatened in the UK.

A problem for some species of butterfly is their extreme reliance on a particular habitat or food source. Small copper butterflies are a good example of one that has chosen a foodplant that is common in lots of different habitat types, namely members of the dock family. However, like all insects, they are still vulnerable to pesticides and loss of suitable habitats.

The small copper is still a fairly abundant species, and one that will feed from suitable garden flowers, so try letting some of those dandelions, yarrow and other low-growing nectar-rich species survive untouched in the garden. It will be worth it to attract these small but colourful butterflies. And why not leave some docks as well?

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