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How to identify garden butterflies

how to identify garden butterflies

Identifying and counting garden butterflies is a fun activity for adults and children – and provides useful scientific data.

In Belgium, a census of garden butterflies takes place every year in July. Until recently, the weather here has been so wet and cool that butterflies have been virtually non-existent. But thankfully over the weekend the sun appeared – and miraculously so did the butterflies! And as the warm dry weather is here all week, now is the perfect time to get out into your garden and start identifying and counting your local butterflies. I’ll give you the details of the butterfly census later in this post.

Actually over the weekend I was delighted to spot, identify and photograph what for me was a totally new butterfly that I’d never seen before: this gorgeous Brown Argus (Bruin blauwtje in Dutch; Collier-de-corail in French):


If you are new to identifying garden butterflies, it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Many of them (particularly the brown ones and the red ones) are rather similar. To help you, below I provide photos of the 16 most common garden butterflies you might expect to see in your garden. Each is identified with its English, Dutch, French and scientific name. I’ve included the Dutch and French names because this will help if you take part in the butterfly census in Belgium. So, here we go: how many of these do you already know, I wonder?

Red admiral
Red admiral / Atalanta / Vulcain / Vanessa atalanta
Peacock / Dagpauwoog / Paon du jour / Aglais io
Small tortoiseshell
Small tortoiseshell / Kleine vos / Petite tortue / Aglais urticae
painted lady
Painted lady / Distelvlinder / Belle dame / Vanessa cardui
Comma / Gehakkelde aurelia / Robert-le-Diable / Polygonia c-album
Map / Landkaartje / Carte géographique / Araschnia levana
Meadow brown
Meadow brown / Bruin zandoogje / Myrtil / Maniola jurtina
Gatekeeper / Oranje zandoogje / Amaryllis / Pyronia tithonus
Ringlet / Koevinkje / Tristan / Aphantopus hyperantus
Speckled wood
Speckled wood / Bont zandoogje / Tircis / Pararge aegeria
Brimstone / Citroenvlinder / Citron / Gonepteryx rhamni
Large white / Groot koolwitje / Piéride du chou  / Pieris brassicae
Small white
Small white / Klein koolwitje / Piéride de la rave / Pieris rapae
Holly blue
Holly blue / Boomblauwtje / Azuré des nerpruns / Celastrina argiolus
Silver washed fritillary 2
Silver-washed fritillary / Keizersmantel / Tabac d’Espagne / Argynnis paphia
Swallowtail / Koninginnepage / Machaon / Papilio machaon

Take part in a garden butterfly census

As I mentioned earlier, in July in Belgium you have the chance to count the number of butterflies in your garden and submit the numbers to the relevant scientific organizations. The aim is to investigate trends in butterfly species and help guide butterfly conservation efforts. Taking part is easy. Counts are best undertaken on a dry, sunny day. This is a great idea for children too!

You submit your results online. This is where it gets a little complicated. Belgium being Belgium, there is no single, central website. If you live in Flanders, you need to go to the Natuurpunt website and enter your results in Flemish here. You have until 25 July 2021. In Wallonia you go to the Natagara website and enter your results in French here. For some reason, if you live in Wallonia you have a bit longer; until 31 July. If you live in bilingual Brussels, just choose the website in the language you feel most comfortable.

You’ll need to know the Dutch or French names too, but just to tick them off on a list. Now you know why I’ve given you the Dutch and French names of the different species! So, armed with the photos and captions above, you are well-set!


Many thanks to Matt Rowlings of for giving me permission to use his photographs. All the above 16 photos are his. Matt’s site is also highly informative, so if you need more information on a particular butterfly, it’s a great place to start.

If you see a butterfly you can’t identify, you can always take its picture and contact me or email it to me and I will do my best to identify it. Or even quicker, attach it to a WhatsApp message:

I hope you enjoy identifying garden butterflies. It’s also a great summer project for your children or grandchildren, and will introduce them to butterfly identification and conservation. Two other nature projects that you might find useful are:

If you find these educational posts useful, would you consider buying me a virtual coffee to help towards the costs of running this website? Thanks. Denzil .

15 thoughts on “How to identify garden butterflies”

  1. Do they have the Monarch butterfly in Europe? It is common in the US and my personal favorite. Our Virginia state butterfly is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Fun and helpful post.

    1. No the Monarch doesn’t reach this far, despite its migratory powers. Your Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks very similar to our Swallowtail. Gorgeous insects!

  2. All beauties, Denzil. Sad to report that butterflies have long disappeared from our small urban garden space.
    You have been in my thoughts during the news of the extreme flooding in Europe. Hope that all is well in your region.

    1. Thanks for your concern Rosaliene. We are in the center of Belgium and the flooding was in the east, about 80 km away. We had torrential rain but no flooding thankfully.

  3. The perfect post for me Denzil, thanks! I’ve been cross-referencing my ‘guide to British wildlife’, which includes an illustrated butterfly guide, with the Natagora print-out of common butterflies in Belgium, which I’ve tacked onto the fridge door, but your guide is simpler! I’m planning to post my results on the Natagora site – luckily as you say the sun in out, and also we have a Buddleia in our garden which is the perfect butterfly magnet (so far we’ve had lots of Red Admirals, a Peacock and a few Cabbage Whites, and possibly a Comma).

  4. I raised many Cabbage loopers when I lived in the south of Italy, as a young girl, and when they made the cocoon it was a magical event for me and when they became butterflies it was wonderful to see them open their wings and fly. Here, on the other hand, in the north east of Italy, we now only have Argynnis aglaja, but around here we have the Prosecco vineyards, on which tons of pesticides are sprayed and very few butterflies can be seen.

      1. Yes, unfortunately the increase in demand for Prosecco (which they often show in films) has put in place an increasingly extensive cultivation of vineyards and we are losing all bees, butterflies and even snails. There are shrewd farmers who use ecological remedies but others think only about profit and not about nature. We keep the dandelion in our garden, we also avoid cutting the grass to allow the bees to come to us. But this year we have seen very few and every year the situation gets worse. We have also made protests against pesticides in the vineyards (which also cause me serious respiratory problems) but the administration of the villages here is made by people who have no sensitivity either for nature or for people. However, I always tell everyone that when they drink Prosecco they drink poison.

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