Red Admiral

The migratory Red Admiral butterfly can be spotted from spring until winter in the milder climate of the south-west.
Photo: Amanda Scott

Scientific name: Vanessa atalanta

Cornish name: ‘Tikki-dui’ is the general word for butterfly

The Red Admiral is such an unmistakeable and familiar butterfly in Britain, with its glossy black-brown wings and red and white markings, that it is easy to forget it is primarily a migratory visitor from Europe and northern Africa.

The species does of course breed here during the summer, but British winters are generally too cold for Red Admirals other than in the warmer far south of the country, including parts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where there is evidence that overwintering of adults and other stages occurs. Indeed, females are thought to lay eggs in Cornwall as late as December, and certainly in November.

Red Admirals arrive on our shores from the spring, with further waves of migrations often occurring up to September in good years. British-bred Red Admirals emerge from July, continuing in successive broods until October. The primary larval foodplant is Nettle (Urtica dioica). Females lay eggs singly on the upper surface of a leaf. After hatching, the caterpillar folds the edges of the leaf together and binds them with silk to form a protective shelter, like a tent, while feeding: as it grows it makes new tents, before pupating.

The later-season Red Admirals in the autumn and early winter are often found nectaring on Ivy flowers or rotting fruit as a late-season replacement for their favourite Buddleia. Individuals often show signs of wear and tear on their wings as the season progresses: see the ragged edge to the wings in the upper photo.

Some of the adults do attempt to migrate south again as winter approaches. Although a butterfly of gardens and woodland glades, the strong-flying Red Admirals can often be found on the coast, as they stop off for nectar on their inward or outward migration.

Did you know…?

…Keeping warm? There is a reported sighting of adults mating in early December in north Cornwall (Wacher et al., 2003).

…Traffic jam: as Red Admirals begin to migrate back south from August onwards, numbers in the south of the country increase, making them a not uncommon sight into the autumn and early winter.

More information and references:

Jones, S., 2010. Insects of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Alison Hodge, Penzance, Cornwall.

Mansell, E. and Newman, L.H., 1968. The Complete British Butterflies in Colour. Ebury Press and Michael Joseph, London.

Wacher, J., Worth, J. and Spalding, A., 2003. A Cornwall Butterfly Atlas. Pisces Publications, Newbury, Berkshire.

Whalley, P. and Lewington, R., 2009. The Pocket Guide to Butterflies. Bounty Books, London.

Published: November 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Amanda Scott (top right) and Ray Surridge (lower left)