Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

Aglais urticae

family Nymphalidae

Image of Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

The wings of the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly are mainly orange and brown on the top. There are patches of colour along the front edge of the forewing which are dark brown, pale yellow and white. There are also blue marks along the border of the other edges.

Underneath, the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly is mainly dark brown but with a band of light brown.

My personal observations of Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

months seen in my garden: March to November, largest numbers in August to September

garden plants that attract this species:

Aster, Aubrieta, Buddleia, Candytuft, Ceanothus, Cirsium, Clethra, Coneflower, Cotoneaster,Crocus, Dandelion, Escallonia, Field Scabious, Forget-me-not, Hebe, Helichrysum, Heliotrope, Hemp Agrimony, Hydrangea, Hyssop, Lavender, Linum Perenne, Lobelia, Marigold, Mint, Muscari, Pot Marigold, Red Valerian, Sedum, Skimmia, Solidago, Sweet William, Thyme, Toadflax, Verbena, Virginian Stock, Zinnia

Butterfly sightings 2005:

First sighting of Small Tortoiseshell on Celandine, 18 March
Small Tortoiseshell on Crocus, 18 March
Small Tortoiseshell on Forget-me-not, 25 March
Small Tortoiseshell on Aubrieta, 25 March
Seen in garden, 23 and 26 July, 1 and 17 August
Seen at Whitesheet hill, 21 August
Two on Sedum spectabile, 28 August
3-4 Small Tortoiseshells throughout day, 30 August
One on Verbena bonariensis at Berkeley Castle, 3 September
Several on Hemp agrimony at Coaley Peak, 3 September
On Water Mint at Matara garden, 4 September
On Sedum spectabile, 9 and 12 September
Feeding on Aster at Upton House, 2 October

Butterfly sightings 2004:

This butterfly emerges from hibernation in the Spring and goes searching for a mate:-

Small Tortoiseshell on Muscari, 30 March
Small Tortoiseshell on Dandelion, 30 March
Small Tortoiseshell on Skimmia, 2 April

The first generation for the current year then appear in early Summer:

Small Tortoiseshell on Verbena rigida, 18 June
Small Tortoiseshell on Candytuft, 19 June
Small Tortoiseshell on Escallonia, 22 June
Small Tortoiseshell on Hebe, 22 June
Small Tortoiseshell on Marigold, 25 June
Small Tortoiseshell on Cotoneaster, 28 June

I was admitted to hospital on 15 July for 4 months so there are no photos for the later part of the year.

Top 10 memorable images of 2003:

I had a total of 413 digital images of Small Tortoiseshell saved from my digital camera plus slides from my SLR. It was a hard choice picking 10 from that selection!

thumbnail link Small Tortoiseshell resting on Pittosporum. August 8. Love the contrast between the foliage and the butterfly's wings.

thumbnail link Mud-puddling. Side view of Small Tortoiseshell. July 27. Butterflies don't just like the nectar from flowers; they like rotting fruit and dung. This Small Tortoiseshell was extracting nutrients from the track at the entrance to a nearby farm.

thumbnail link See the Proboscis (feeding tube). August 8. Arguably the best photo of a Small Tortoiseshell from 2003. Sat on Verbena bonariensis.

thumbnail link Face to face. August 19. Sat on Sedum spectabile not yet in flower.

thumbnail link 4 Small Tortoiseshells on Buddleia. August 8. Very hot. Two days before the British highest recorded temperature record was broken. Lots of butterflies in the garden.

thumbnail link 8 Small Tortoiseshell butterflies on Buddleia 'White Profusion'. August 8 early in the morning - later in the day they folded their wings together to avoid getting too hot. 8 was the maximum number of butterflies in one photo. in 2003 and sets my record to beat in 2004. Can you do better?

thumbnail link 3 Small Tortoiseshell butterflies on Hebe Josephine. August 30. Saw a maximum of six at any one time on this shrub.

thumbnail link On blue Hyssop. August 24. Opened the kitchen blind on Saturday 23 August to the amazing sight of 13 Small Tortoiseshells on this one plant. The plant was covered with Small Tortoiseshells over the next few days and my maximum number reached a count of 23 (plus 3 Small Whites). Photography couldn't do justice to the real life picture - settled for this shot as an example.

thumbnail link Caught. August 30. As summer ends the garden is criss-crossed with spider's webs and each day 1-2 Small Tortoiseshells could be found wrapped up as Garden Spider food-parcel. This one was freed by a friendly human.

thumbnail link 4 in a row (with a Painted Lady) on Zinnia. August 12. Stourhead Gardens (National Trust) Wilts. I was amused by this line up.

A selection of images from previous years:

5 September 2002 on Coneflower
5 September 2002 on Scabious
September 2002 in my bathroom
6 July 2002 on Candytuft - top view
6 July 2002 on Candytuft - side view
26 March 2002 on Muscari
September 2001 on Helichrysum
August 2000 - side view
17 September 1999 on Hebe
16 September 1999 on Kentranthus


Every summer from 1997 there have been more Small Tortoiseshell butterflies than any other butterfly species in my garden. On Sunday 24 August 2003, I recorded that there were approx. 20 in each of the front & back garden (total 40). They were mainly feeding on Sedum spectabile and Hyssop.

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies have wide-ranging tastes in nectar sources - see the plant list above. The best plants for attracting them are Buddleia, Verbena, Hyssop, Sedum, Hebe and Marigold.

Reference Section

Size: 50-56mm (similar size to Small White - see list of butterflies by size)

First Generation flight period: June-Aug
Second Generation flight period: Aug-May (over-winters as butterfly)

Larval Food Plants: Nettles
Wild Nectar Plants: Celandine, Dandelion, Field Scabious, Hemp Agrimony, Wild Thyme

Family Group: Nymphalidae - see list of butterflies by family

This page last updated: 9 December, 2005