Be Nice to Nettles Week
  a CONE initiative
“Delicious nutritious nettles, bring to mind sunny childhood play days, excellent as an additive to compost and essential for some many caterpillars.

Thank you CONE for raising the profile and improving the reputation of this wild plant, and thanks alike to all who grow them in their garden for butterflies.”

Helen Firminger
Project Manager, London Wildlife Trust Centre for Wildlife Gardening



Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae

 Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae
 Copyright Butterfly Conservation
© Butterfly Conservation
Perhaps the most well known of the nettle dependent butterflies - a frequent visitor to gardens in late summer.

The Small Tortoiseshell is one of our most common butterflies with an easily recognisable pattern of orange, yellow and black markings on the upper surface of the wings. A resident species it can be found across the whole of the British Isles including the more remote Scottish Islands.

The adults emerge from hibernation as soon as the days warm in spring and immediately set about feeding and breeding. The males will secure territories in a suitable sunny nettle patch each day. From here they chase any other butterfly that wanders past - the spiralling flight of rival males is a common sight over large nettle beds. Should a female fly past she is chased incessantly until the pair eventually land to mate within the nettle patch.

The female then concentrates on egg laying. Choosing the tender shoot tips of nettle at the edge of a large sunny bed she will lay a batch of about 80 eggs. These hatch about twelve days later. The army of tiny, black and yellow caterpillars immediately spin a silk tent around the nettle tips in which they can feed in relative safety. This continues with successively bigger, and very noticeable, tents until the caterpillars moult for the last time. At this point they become more less solitary and can exhibit leaf rolling tendencies like their relative the Red Admiral.

 Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars
 Copyright Butterfly Conservation
© Butterfly Conservation

Those that survive parasitism may then wander many metres away from the nettle bed to pupate on tree trunks, walls and in hedgerows. The chrysalises vary from gold to brown in response to the pupation site. This camouflage attempt is not without reason for it is at this stage that a great many pupae are lost to hungry blue tits and other insect eating birds. Adults emerge from the pupae that remain in around twelve days.

The behaviour of these adults varies with the timing of their emergence. Those that emerge late in the year start to feed on nectar to build up fat reserves to see them through hibernation. Those that hatch early in the year set about breeding immediately and thus it is common to have two broods per year in the south of England or after a particularly warm spring. The adults from this second brood will then feed up for the winter - it is these adults we frequently see as they gorge themselves on our garden flowers.

Strangely enough the adults have come to exploit human endeavours in choosing their hibernation sites, frequently finding shelter in garden sheds and garages which are similar to their more natural tree hollow sites. If you do happen to be blessed with some winter visitors don't be tempted to move them as this will deplete their energy reserves and put them at risk.

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Did you know?
Native American braves would flog themselves with nettles to keep themselves awake while on watch.
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