Butterflies of Britain & Europe
Orange tip
Anthocharis cardamines  LINNAEUS, 1758
subfamily - PIERINAE
 introduction | habitats | lifecycle | adult behaviour

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, male, Dunsfold, Surrey, England

The Orange tip, like the primrose and the cuckoo, is a true herald of spring. It is one of the very few species that are on the increase in Britain, having spread northwards in recent decades, whilst still remaining widespread and abundant in the south.

The orange tips to the male's forewings are believed to be aposematic, acting as a warning to birds that the butterflies contain toxins ( mustard oils ) derived from the larval foodplants, garlic mustard and cuckoo flower . Females lack the orange - they lead much more sedentary and inconspicuous lives so possibly have less need to "advertise" their toxicity.
It's unlikely that the orange of the male serves any purpose in mate recognition - in this species it is the male that searches for the female. The female therefore has no need to visually locate the male.
There is virtually no variation in the colouring or patterning of Orange tips, but there is a great deal of variation in size. The smaller butterflies may result from larvae that have fed on cuckoo flower - these plants often have barely enough foliage to sustain the larvae, and it is possible that they literally run out of food, and pupate early.

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, male basking, Dunsfold, Surrey, England
In Europe the female Orange tip can easily be confused with the Dappled Whites Euchloe ausonia and E. simplonia, although both of these are more heavily marked with green on the underside hindwings, and have more angular forewings.  The only European species with which the male can be confused is Gruner's Orange tip Anthocharis gruneri but that species, which occurs only in south-eastern Europe, is markedly smaller, and has a more yellowish ground colour.
Elsewhere in the world there are several other Orange tip species, e.g. Anthocharis sara from Alaska, A. cethura from California, and A. bieti from Tibet and Siberia. The last two species have very falcate apices on the forewings.  Zegris fausti from Turkestan is also similar in appearance but has a strongly recurved forewing costa. The 40 African Colotis "Orange tips" have plain undersides, and are only distantly related.
Anthocharis cardamines is found throughout most of Europe, but is absent from much of the Iberian peninsula and from northern Scandinavia. It's range extends eastward across temperate Asia to Amurland and Japan.
In southern Britain the Orange tip can be encountered in almost any habitat, but is most commonly seen in damp sheltered areas where it's larval foodplants grow. These include riverbanks, ditches, dykes, hedgerows, damp meadows, fens, railway cuttings, damp woodland glades and country lanes. The butterflies wander almost randomly across the countryside, unlike in northern England and Scotland where they breed in localised colonies, usually close to river banks.

When species are near the edge of their natural range they need to become more specialised in their choice of breeding sites - open countryside would be too cool for the Orange tip in northern Britain, but riverbanks provide a sheltered, warm and humid environment where the butterfly and its foodplants can flourish.

In continental Europe the butterfly is found in a much wider range of habitats including marshland, moors, arid scrub, and on alpine pastures at altitudes up to 2100m.

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, male at roost on bugle

Orange tips usually begin to emerge in mid April, but can appear as early as the end of March in an exceptionally warm spring. Conversely in a cold spring their appearance can be delayed until late April. The peak flight season for both sexes is mid-May, and by the end of the month the males have disappeared and just a few females remain, and may continue flying into very early June. In Europe the flight season is longer, with the butterflies still on the wing in early July at moderate altitudes in the Alps.


Weather conditions during the flight season have a great affect on butterfly abundance the following year. In early seasons a high percentage of eggs are laid on cuckoo flower Cardamine pratensis, but in late seasons the majority are laid on garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata. Larval survival is higher on garlic mustard than on cuckoo flower, probably because the former produces larger and more abundant seed pods. Hence a late "season" tends to result in higher numbers of adults being seen the following year.


Although cuckoo flower and garlic mustard are the primary foodplants, females occasionally oviposit on charlock, hedge mustard or watercress; but regardless of the plant chosen, the eggs are always laid singly, and always in the same position - on the flower stalks. Sometimes more than one egg can be found per plant, but this is unusual, as the butterflies seem able to detect the presence of eggs that have already been laid. The eggs are skittle-shaped and greenish-white in colour when first laid, but turn to orange after a day or two, and then finally to grey.


Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, male nectaring at garlic mustard, Stansted Forest, Sussex


The caterpillars hatch after about 8 days.  When very young they are pale orange, and feed on the flowers of the foodplants. After the first moult they become a dull green, and feed on the flower-stalks, and later on the seedpods and leaves.
When fully grown they are pale bluish green with a white lateral line, below which the colour changes to dark green. They habitually rest on the upper surface of the seedpods, where they are superbly camouflaged. Nevertheless many are taken by predators - mainly spiders and birds. The larvae are also parasitised by at least one species of fly, the Tachinid Phryxe vulgaris, which also attacks several other species of caterpillar, including Small Tortoiseshell.
Orange tip larvae are noted for their cannibalistic tendencies - this may have evolved because some of the larval foodplants ( e.g. cuckoo flower ) only produce enough seed pods and foliage to sustain a single larva through to full development. Larvae are very reluctant to leave the plants on which they hatch, so for their own survival it becomes necessary for them to devour their competing brethren.
Caterpillars which have been feeding on cuckoo flower leave the plants when ready to pupate, and attach themselves with a silken girdle to a nearby woody stem. Larvae on garlic mustard however usually pupate on the stems of the plant.
The distinctive boomerang-shaped pupa cannot be mistaken for any other species. It occurs in two colour forms - pale green, or brownish. The latter is by far the commoner. In 2009, I made a quick search of a clump of garlic mustard in a Sussex woodland, and found 5 pupae, of which 4 were the normal brownish form, and one of the green form. One pupa was parasitised, another had been nibbled by a small mammal ( probably a pigmy shrew ), and the remainder were healthy. All were attached to the stems of dead garlic mustard plants.

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, pupa ( normal form ) on garlic mustard stem

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, pupa ( green form ) on garlic mustard stem
Adult behaviour

Male Orange tips begin emerging in early April, followed about a week later by the females. As with many other butterfly species, female Orange tips must mate within a couple of days of emergence, after which they appear to lose their attraction to the males, so the staggered emergence is nature's way of ensuring that there are plenty of males available when the females emerge.


When seen in flight, female Orange tips can be difficult to distinguish from Green-veined Whites, but when they settle, the beautiful mottled green markings on the underside hindwings make them easy to identify. The green colour is actually an illusion caused by a mottling of black and yellow scales. The markings are an extremely effective camouflage which works against a variety of backgrounds - the butterflies are equally difficult to spot when at rest on bracken fronds, hazel leaves, or nettles; or on the white flowers of garlic mustard or umbellifers.


Orange tips visit a wide variety of wild flowers including bluebell, bugle, wood anemone, blackthorn, primrose, hawthorn, garlic mustard, early purple orchid, common vetch, dog violet, colt's foot, dandelion and cuckoo flower.


When nectaring or settling for short periods, they normally keep their wings half open. This has the effect of trapping a tiny pocket of warm air over the thorax, and thereby aids rapid body warming. In hazy weather or late evening sunshine however they often bask for long periods with the wings fully outspread.


Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, male on cuckoo flower, Dunsfold, Surrey


Males patrol constantly in search of females, and when the sexes meet copulation takes place immediately, without any prenuptial ritual. If a female that has already mated is intercepted by a male, she signals her disinterest to his advances by settling on a leaf, flattening her wings and raising her abdomen. This tells the male that she is unreceptive, and makes it physically impossible for him to copulate.


Anthocharis cardamines, female ( right ) raising her abdomen as a signal to the male that she is unreceptive to his advances. Magdalen Hill Down, Hampshire.


Orange tips roost openly, even in wet or windy weather, and can be found at dusk and dawn settled on the flower heads of cuckoo flower, garlic mustard, bluebells and hazel or nettle leaves, in sheltered and lightly wooded situations.


Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines, male at roost, Dunsfold, Surrey



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