Small tortoiseshell

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

Small Tortoiseshell ©Scott Petrek

Small tortoiseshell

Scientific name: Aglais urticae
The pretty small tortoiseshell is a familiar garden visitor that can be seen feeding on flowers all year-round during warm spells. Overwintering adults may find resting spots in sheds, garages or even houses.

Species information


Wingspan: 4.5-6.2cm

Conservation status


When to see

January to December


The small tortoiseshell is a medium-sized, pretty butterfly that is common in gardens where it feeds on buddleia and other flowers. It is on the wing throughout the year, having two or three broods and overwintering as an adult. The caterpillars feed on common nettle.
Male small tortoiseshells are very territorial, chasing each other, other butterflies and anything else that appears in their space. They court females by 'drumming' their antennae on the females' hindwings.

How to identify

The small tortoiseshell is mainly reddish-orange in colour, with black and yellow markings on the forewings and a ring of blue spots around the edge of the wings. The similar painted lady is also orange with black spots, but lacks the yellow and blue markings.



Did you know?

The similar-looking large tortoiseshell was a common butterfly in Victorian times, but is now considered to be extinct in the UK. Sightings are usually migrants or escapees from captivity. It is thought that a range of factors caused its decline, including parasitism, climate change and Dutch Elm Disease which devastated its main foodplant.

How people can help

To attract butterflies, such as the small tortoiseshell, into your garden, plant nectar-rich borders for them to feed along and climbing Ivy and shrubs for overwintering insects.