There are no prizes for guessing how the Orange Tip butterfly got its name. Butterflies have four wings and it is obvious that it is the brightly-coloured tips of both the upper and lower surfaces of the two forewings that give this butterfly its common English name.
However, it is only the male that has the orange tips. The female Orange Tip has no bright colours and can easily be mistaken for other small white butterflies.
Some butterflies, like the Small Tortoiseshell, overwinter as adults. The Orange Tip is one of the first species to emerge that has not overwintered as an adult, so an early-flying small white butterfly without orange tips is likely to be a female Orange Tip. To be sure, the ground colour of the wings needs to be compared with that of the male.
The hind-wings of both sexes are mottled green underneath and this mottling is so strong that it can be faintly seen showing through on the upper sides of the hind wings unlike any other white butterfly, thereby confirming its identification..
Orange Tip butterflies are common in grassy places all over Ireland and they have the distinction of being a distinct sub-species called 'hibernica'. Outside of Ireland, our unique sub-species has also been found to be resident in the Isle of Man.
These butterflies favour moist places and are particularly common in damp meadows, along roadside verges and by watercourses. They will readily visit gardens.
The adults will be on the wing from late April to the end of June. They breed just once in the year. Females lay their eggs on food sources for the caterpillars. The chosen foodplants are several members of the large crucifer family, so called because they are plants with flowers composed of four petals arranged in the shape of a cross.
The very pale pink-petalled Cuckooflower is a favourite foodplant. A single egg is attached to each plant. Orange Tip caterpillars are cannibalistic, so it is believed that laying only one egg per plant has evolved as a survival mechanism.
Caterpillars fatten up during June and hide away in dense vegetation in July to pupate. The pupa hangs from vegetation for nine months fasting and surviving all that the autumn and winter weather can throw at it as it awaits the arrival of the following April before emerging as an adult butterfly to start the life cycle all over again.