The blue butterflies are some of the most stunning insects to be found in the UK. To many, they are the optimal sight on a hot summer’s day spent on a species-rich grassland. Not all are constrained to grasslands though, and they make use of a wide variety of habitats. They belong to a subfamily called the Polyommatinae, with nine resident species in the UK. The name ‘blue’ can be confusing, as some species show strong sexual dimorphism (where males and females look very different), with females being predominantly brown. In some species, neither sex is blue at all.

Most blue butterflies have a close relationship with ants, a phenomenon called myrmecophily. In this subfamily, the larvae produce a sweet secretion from a ‘honey’ gland, which is a food source for ants. The ants are attracted to this and tend to the larvae, who in return are offered a level of protection from potential predators and parasites. As we will discover, this relationship is not essential for all blue butterflies, whereas others are dependent on ants to complete their life cycle – sometimes to the detriment of the ants.

Some species are easy to identify, but others can be difficult to distinguish and rely on closer inspection, particularly of the markings on the undersides. It can help to know which larval hostplants are used for egg-laying, and therefore each species’ preferred habitat, as well as the months in which they’re flying. Some species are single-brooded (only one generation each year), while others can have second and even third broods. Here is a look at each species, with tips on where and when to look for them, and key features to confirm identification.

Common blue

As its name suggests, this is our most widespread blue, although there have been recent declines. The name does not do justice to the beauty of freshly emerged males, which are a striking blue. Females can vary in appearance, but are usually brown, with a touch of deep blue near the wing base, although this blue can extend over most of the upperwing. All females have orange spots along the edges of the upperwings.

The common blue’s wide distribution reflects its larval hostplant, predominantly common bird’s-foot-trefoil, found in a variety of habitats and which can readily colonise disturbed ground. The butterfly can be seen almost anywhere this plant grows in sunny, sheltered areas – which highlights the importance of climatic factors influencing butterflies, as not all habitats can be used. This includes downland, old quarries, woodland clearings, road verges, sand dunes, coastal cliffs and even rural gardens.

It is double-brooded, with two generations a year – although a third brood is possible in the south of England if conditions allow. As a result, common blues can be seen throughout different parts of the UK from May into September, and into October if a third generation is produced.

Great British Life: The holly blue is the first blue butterfly on the wing each year, as early as April, and the most likely to be encountered in gardens. The holly blue is the first blue butterfly on the wing each year, as early as April, and the most likely to be encountered in gardens. (Image: Rachel Scopes)

Holly blue

The first blue butterfly on the wing each year, as early as April, and the most likely to be encountered in gardens. Timings can help with identification as any blue seen in early spring will be a holly blue. At a glance, it could be mistaken for a common blue, but seeing the underside of the wings will allow for easy separation. The holly blue has a pale, silvery underside with fine black spots, and lacks any of the orange spotting shown by the common blue.

The holly blue is widespread and is extending its range north. In northern populations, there is only a single brood each year, but throughout much of its range it is double-brooded, with spring and summer generations. The spring generation predominantly lays eggs on holly, hence the name, and can be seen into early June. However, the summer generation lays its eggs on ivy, so ‘ivy blue’ would be just as fitting. Summer generations typically emerge in July and can be seen into late August. A third brood is sometimes produced in southern populations, with sightings in October, and rarely, in November. Populations can fluctuate greatly on four-to-six-year cycles, which is thought to be linked with a parasitic wasp that is solely dependent on the holly blue.

They live in a wide variety of habitats where the larval foodplants grow, including woodland rides, hedgerows, gardens, and urban parks. The holly blue can be attracted to gardens if holly or ivy is planted in sunny positions and allowed to fruit, providing food for the caterpillars.

Silver-studded blue

This stunning little butterfly gets its name from the metallic blue-green ‘studs’ found on the underside of the hindwings, just beyond the orange spots. Apart from these studs, males are best identified by the thick black borders on their blue upperwings. Females are more challenging and can resemble a faded brown argus.

They’re found predominantly on heathland and coastal sites, where eggs are laid on heathers and gorse. They can also live on limestone grassland and sand dunes, where larval foodplants include rock-rose, horseshoe vetch, and common bird’s-foot-trefoil. There is one generation per year, and this typically peaks in June and July.

Silver-studded blues appear to require the presence of black ants to complete their life cycle. The ants protect the caterpillars in return for sweet secretions. Caterpillars are readily collected and taken into the ant nest, and there is evidence to suggest the ants may even transport the caterpillars between the nest and their foodplants – in effect, farming the caterpillars. This benefits the caterpillar, which also pupates within the ant nests.

Four subspecies of silver-studded blue have been identified in the UK; sadly, two have become extinct. Of the two that remain, one is found throughout much of its range in southern England and Wales, but the other is now found only on the Great Orme and a few nearby sites in North Wales.

Small blue

This is the smallest species of butterfly in the UK. Its size is an immediate clue to its identification, but being blue is not, as they can appear almost black. Males have a variable amount of silvery-blue dusting on their dusky upperwings, but females have no blue. The undersides of both are silvery-blue with black spots, with no orange coloration – allowing for easy separation from brown argus, which is also dark and fairly small. They appear as mini holly blues but can be told from this species by their small size and dark upperwings.

Eggs are laid solely on kidney vetch, and therefore the small blue is constrained to places where this plant is found in warm, sheltered sites. These requirements limit its distribution to chalk and limestone grasslands. This species highlights the delicate relationships between insects and plants; if we lose habitats supporting kidney vetch, we lose the small blue.

Despite being dainty, they are aggressive, and males will gather in lek sites awaiting passing females. In the right conditions, hundreds can gather in sheltered areas of longer grass and scrub. There are two generations a year with adults seen in May and June, and a second generation in late July into August. Scottish populations only have one generation.

Adonis blue

The male Adonis blue is arguably the most beautiful of the blues, with eye-catching electric blue upperwings. This bright blue readily identifies the males, but as the colour fades the border of the wings helps separate them from other blues. There are black markings crossing the white fringes, creating a chequered pattern. This is diagnostic in the UK and also helps differentiate the predominantly brown females from similar species.

However, care must be taken with chalkhill blue females, which can share the same habitat and have brown, chequered borders to the wings. The key difference requires close inspection of the orange spots near the edges of the upper hindwings; Adonis blue females have blue scales below the orange spots, whereas chalkhill blue females have white scales.

Sometimes called the icon of chalk and limestone grassland, this butterfly is found nowhere else as it is restricted to areas where horseshoe vetch grows, the sole larval foodplant. South-facing slopes, with close-cropped grass allowing for abundant horseshoe vetch is prime habitat in southern England. There are two generations a year, the first peaking in June, and the second August into September.

Adonis blue caterpillars have an intimate relationship with ants, which tend the caterpillars. They may even be buried by the ants during the night, as Adonis blue caterpillars only feed during the day.

Great British Life: Chalkhill males are unlike any other blue, with silvery-blue upperwings with a broad dark border. Grassland can seem to shimmer as numerous males fly low in search of emerging females. Chalkhill males are unlike any other blue, with silvery-blue upperwings with a broad dark border. Grassland can seem to shimmer as numerous males fly low in search of emerging females. (Image: Amy Lewis)

Chalkhill blue

As its name suggests, this is a species found on chalk and limestone grassland. This is a noticeably larger butterfly and is the second biggest of the blues, after the large blue. The males are unlike any other blue, with silvery-blue upperwings with a broad dark border. The grassland can seem to shimmer as numerous males fly low in search of emerging females. Females themselves are much less conspicuous, as they spend less time flying and are mostly brown.

As with the Adonis blue, the sole larval foodplant is horseshoe vetch, and so the chalkhill blue is only found on unimproved sites where this plant flourishes in southern England. It can tolerate cooler sites than Adonis blue, although both species can share the same habitat patch. There is only one generation a year, with peak emergence in August.

Chalkhill blue caterpillars also have a close relationship with ants, but they feed mostly at night. They hide during the day, sometimes being buried by the ants. They are often attended by yellow meadow ants, which create conspicuous mounds on grasslands. The relationship is purely symbiotic, with the caterpillars gaining protection and the ants being fed sugary secretions. Butterflies are a fine example of how an entire habitat must be protected due to the intricate relationships between different species. As they’re so sensitive to environmental change, they are also a fantastic indicator species, which can alert us to issues in their environment.

Great British Life: The large blue is one of the most successful conservation stories in the UK, having been reintroduced following its extinction here in 1979. The large blue is one of the most successful conservation stories in the UK, having been reintroduced following its extinction here in 1979. (Image: Ross Hoddinott)

Large blue

One of the most successful conservation stories in the UK, having been reintroduced following its extinction here in 1979. Despite its name, this isn’t a huge butterfly, with a wingspan of approximately 40mm-50mm – but it is the largest of the blues found in the UK. Both sexes are readily identified from other blues due to distinctive black markings on their upper forewings, resembling paw prints. The undersides have white bordered black spots, with no orange spotting.

The large blue is dependent on a red ant, Myrmica sabuleti, to complete its life cycle. At first, the caterpillars feed on wild thyme and marjoram. But after growing for a while, they purposefully seek out foraging red ants and, through mimicking an ant grub, are taken into the ant nest. Once inside, they become carnivores and feed on ant grubs until they pupate within the nest.

The large blue went extinct in the UK as it was not known that only Myrmica sabuleti could be fully deceived by the caterpillars. Other species of red ant will readily adopt them, but the ants are then able to detect that it’s an intruder and kill the caterpillar. Myrmica sabuleti is a warmth-loving species and requires short turf in the UK. Changes to grazing regimes and the loss of rabbits due to myxomatosis resulted in grass heights increasing and ground temperatures cooling, which led to Myrmica sabuleti being lost from the large blue’s habitat. Without the ant, the butterfly disappeared. Its rapid decline perplexed conservationists, as the caterpillar’s known foodplants were still present, as were red ants of different species. Once the mystery was solved, habitat restoration work was carried out at key sites to ensure Myrmica sabuleti was thriving, paving the way for the large blue to be reintroduced.

The butterfly has been successfully reintroduced (from Sweden) and can now be found in the Poldens of Somerset and the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire. In fact, the UK has the largest known population in the world. There is just one generation of large blue butterflies, which can be seen in June on south facing calcareous grasslands.

Great British Life: Brown argus: This small, brown butterfly shows virtually no blue at all, though males can have a slight sheen. Brown argus: This small, brown butterfly shows virtually no blue at all, though males can have a slight sheen. (Image: Vaughn Matthews)Brown argus

This small, brown butterfly shows virtually no blue at all, though males can have a slight sheen in certain circumstances. It looks very similar to a dull female common blue, but there are some cues to help aid identification. The upper forewings of both sexes show a prominent black spot near the centre, and the orange spotting around the edges of both wings is much more conspicuous.

Seeing the undersides provides immediate separation, for the common blue has an extra spot on the forewing not present on the brown argus. Also, the two black spots on the leading edge of the brown argus’s hindwings are close together, creating a figure-of-eight. These two spots on the common blue are further apart (see the photo below).

The brown argus is found in numerous open habitats but is most common on chalk and limestone grassland. Here they lay their eggs almost exclusively on common rock-rose. In other open habitats they lay eggs on crane’s-bills. These plants are annuals, and grow well in disturbed ground including coastal grassland, woodland clearings, disused railways, and road verges. Some brown arguses are even extending into abandoned farmland if it is managed sensitively, which may help extend their range. Two broods are produced, with adults peaking May to June, and then August to September.

The name brown argus stems from the butterfly’s markings. As we have seen, the undersides of the blues have varied markings that aid identification; some describe them as spots, while others, including early entomologists, call them eyes. As a result, the blues were referred to as eyed butterflies, or ‘arguses’ after the mythological character Argus, who had 100 eyes covering his body.

Northern brown argus

As its name suggests, this is a northern species, only found in Scotland and northern England. Its southern limit almost corresponds with the northern limit of the brown argus, which in most of the UK is a useful clue for separating the two species. In places where they overlap, they are very difficult to tell apart. The key distinguishing feature of the northern brown argus is a white spot in the middle of the upperside of each forewing, as well as fainter black spots on the underwing. The latter is particularly important in England, as a separate race is found here, which lacks the white spots.

Northern brown argus is usually seen on limestone habitats, particularly on sheltered and well-drained hillsides. It can be found on acidic soils in Scotland, if rock-rose can grow there. It prefers areas with some bare ground. Only one generation is produced, with adults on the wing in June and July.

This species highlights the challenges butterflies are facing due to climate change. Most species are expanding their range northwards, if habitat connectivity allows, and are emerging earlier each year. The northern brown argus does not have this opportunity – it is found in our most northerly habitats and has nowhere else to go. We need to ensure that there are large areas of suitable habitat for them, creating an increased range of microhabitats so the butterfly can adapt to seasonal fluctuations.

What you can do

Discover how you can attract butterflies in your gardens, green spaces or balconies by simply letting things grow.