Vanessa atalanta (L.)   
Red Admiral

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Hexapoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera – butterflies & moths

British distribution: Regular migrant throughout Britain.
World distribution: Southern and central Europe, North Africa, Asia, Central and North America, migratory beyond its breeding ranges.

Vanessa atalanta
Vanessa atalanta on Centaurea nigra, Wigtownshire, August 2004.

The Red Admiral is one of our most distinctive and well known butterflies, though it is not an established breeding species in Britain and its numbers depend substantially on migrations from southern Europe and North Africa. It seems that migrants arriving in the spring are likely already to have mated (Asher et al., 2001) and then lay their eggs on Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) or other members of the Urticaceae. British reared individuals are supplemented by further waves of immigration though the summer, but then only a very small proportion of all individuals successfully over-winter, these generally being females (Purefoy, in Frohawk, 1914). There is no evidence of continued breeding success at any given site.

The name "Red Admiral" is not any reference to naval rank, but a corruption of the 19th Century (or earlier) name, "Red Admirable".

Identification and variation
The red bands on a black background are like no other British butterfly and it shows little variation. The sexes are similar, the female being slightly larger and with slightly more rounded hind-wings (suggesting that the individual in the photographs is a female). There are variants in which the red bands may be blackish, or various shades of orange or yellow, even white, but all are exceptionally rare. Russwarm (1978) gives the nomenclature of these variants.

The caterpillar is dark but variable in ground colour, speckled and generally with a broken, yellow stripe along each side, and along the back are seven rows of branched spines, also variable in colour. Detailed descriptions of each stage and of colour variations were given by Frohawk (1914). Eggs are laid singly and the caterpillar spins an individual protective tent amongst the leaves of its food-plant. (It thus differs from the related and more common, nettle-feeding vanessid caterpillars on nettles, those of the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, in which the caterpillars live in colonies.)


Vanessa atalanta, Wigtownshire, August 2004, additional photographs.
Vanessa atalanta
Vanessa atalanta
Vanessa atalanta, showing underside
Vanessa atalanta, feeding, close view

Vanessa atalanta
Vanessa atalanta, Ayrshire, October 2006.

•   Asher, J., et al. (2001). The millenium atlas of butterflies in Britain and Ireland, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
•   Frohawk, F.W., (1914). The natural history of British butterflies, vol. 1, Hutchinson & Co., London. [Known date of printing, distribution was delayed by some years but no separate publication date is given.]
•   Russwarm, A.D.A., (1978). Aberrations of British butterflies, E.W. Classey, Faringdon.

© A.J. Silverside
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