Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly - Aglais urticae

Phylum: Arthropoda - Class: Insecta - Order: Lepidoptera - Family: Nymphalidae

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly, Agais urticae

This is one of the few butterflies that hibernate as adults, and you may come across them indoors in the dead of winter. In Britain they first emerge in March, and in mild years they are still seen on the wing as late as October.

In mild winters the hibernation of Small Tortoiseshells is sometimes interrupted on warm January or February days, when they can be seen basking on south-facing walls.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, wings closed


Small Tortoiseshells can be found throughout Europe, from the Mediterranean right into northern Scandinavia (and eastwards through Asia to the Pacific Coast).

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on Budleia

In Britain these common and well known butterflies are particularly fond of Buddleia blossom in gardens and on railway embankments; they also take nectar from thistles, and so they are often to be seen on untended banks of spate rivers.

Small Tortoiseshell resting on a stony track


As the specific epithet implies, the larval foodplants of this species are nettles of the genus Urtica, and most commonly the Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica.

early instars if Small Tortoiseshell larvae

Above: early instars if Small Tortoiseshell larvae

Small Tortoiseshell larva alone before pupating

Above: a Small Tortoiseshell larva alone before pupating

Small Tortoiseshell larva about to pupate

Above: a Small Tortoiseshell larva about to pupate

Small Tortoiseshell pupating

Above: a pupating Small Tortoiseshell

Small Tortoiseshell just pupated

Above: a Small Tortoiseshell just pupated

Small Tortoiseshell about to emerge

Above: a Small Tortoiseshell about to emerge

Small Tortoiseshell emerging from pupation

Above: a Small Tortoiseshell emerging from pupation

In some parts of England, notably the Midlands, the common name Bobby Howler was applied to the Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly, but the reason for this is obscure.


The genus name Aglais comes from Greek and means 'splendid' or 'shining', while the specific epithet urticae is a reference to the burning sting of the larval food plant Stinging Nettle, Urtica doica.

Not to be confused with...

The Large Tortoiseshell butterfly Nymphalis polychloros is similar in appearance but does not have the large black patch on the underside of the hind wing. This butterfly is now very rare in Britain and indeed extinct in most regions, turning up occasionally but very locally in parts of southern England and Wales.


This page includes pictures kindly contributed by Betty and Tony Rackham.

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