Brimstone butterfly facts size and scientific classification

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Brimstone butterfly

The brimstone is a common butterfly. The males are bright yellow in colour and it is widely held that the species was the inspiration for the name ‘butterfly’. The females are more greenish-white in colour, with an orange spot in the centre of each wing. The undersides of the wings are greenish, with prominent veins. The caterpillar has a green body with blackish flecks, a white line along the sides.

Brimstone butterfly Introduction

It is commonly believed that the word “butterfly” is a derived from “butter-coloured fly” which is attributed to the yellow of the male Brimstone butterfly, the female being a much paler whitish-green. The Brimstone has a most exquisite wing shape, perfectly matching a leaf when roosting overnight or hibernating within foliage.

This is one of the few species that hibernates as an adult and, as such, spends the majority of its life as an adult butterfly. The distribution of this species closely follows that of the larval foodplant. In England, where it is represented by the subspecies rhamni, it can be found south of a line from Cheshire in the west to South-east Yorkshire in the east, although vagrants may turn up in other areas.

In Ireland, where it is represented by the subspecies gravesi, its strongholds are in a small area that lies between the borders of West Galway, West Mayo and East Mayo, and a band running through central Ireland from Clare in the west to Kildare in the east.

Scientific classification Brimstone butterfly

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Clade: Euarthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Pieridae
  • Genus: Gonepteryx
  • Species: G. rhamni
  • Binomial name: Gonepteryx rhamni

About Brimstone butterfly

Gonepteryx rhamni (known as the common brimstone) is a butterfly of the family Pieridae. It lives throughout the Palearctic zone, commonly found across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Across much of its range, it is the only species of its genus, and is therefore simply known locally as the brimstone.

The brimstone relies on two species of buckthorn plants as host plants for its larvae; this influences its geographic range and distribution, as these plants are commonly found in wetlands. The adult brimstone travels to woodland areas to spend seven months overwintering.

In spring when their host plants have developed, they return to the wetlands to breed and lay eggs.

Brimstone butterfly Habitat

The Brimstone can be found in scrubby grassland, woodland, gardens and wasteground. The larval foodplant (Buckthorn) occurs in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. The butterfly ranges widely and can often be seen flying along roadside verges.

Size and Family

  • Family: Whites and Yellows
  • Size: Large
  • Wing Span Range (male to female): 60mm

Conservation Status

  • Butterfly Conservation Priority: Low
  • Europan Status: Not threatened
  • Fully protected under the Northern Ireland 1985 Wildlife Order

Brimstone butterfly biology

The brimstone is univoltine, meaning that one generation is produced per year. During May, females lay their eggs singly on the undersides of leaves of the foodplants. The caterpillars hatch after around ten days; they then feed on the leaves, typically resting along the mid-rib where they are difficult to spot.

After around a month, pupation takes place the caterpillars attach their pupae to the stems of the foodplant. Around two weeks later the adults emerge; they do not mate at this time but instead spend many hours feeding on nectar, building up reserves for hibernation. This species has a very long proboscis, and can exploit flowers with very deep nectarines, including runner bean flowers and teasels.

Life cycle Brimstone butterfly

The common brimstone is one of the longest-living moths, with a life expectancy ranging from 10 months to a year.Due to its hibernation and life cycle, it has one generation per year. Development from the laid egg to the emergence of the imago is approximately 50 days. However, the adult brimstone spends a large portion of its life in an overwintering state. The brimstone is highly mobile, feeding and travelling to regions ideal for hibernation during the late summer and fall, and returning to regions ideal for mating and egg-laying during the spring.


Adult common brimstones lay eggs singly on the underside of buckthorn leaves. The eggs change colour over time, initially having a greenish-white colouration, then progressively darker shades of yellow, and finally brown before hatching.


The larvae of the common brimstone undergo five instars, initially having a length of 1.7 mm in the first instar and reaching up to 34.9 mm in length when fully grown. The caterpillars have a green colouration with white hairs and dark tubercules across its length. When they first hatch, they move to the top side of the leaves and eat them, leaving characteristic hole patterns in their host plants.

Also More: Adonis Blue butterfly

Brimstone butterfly images

Image by Erik Karits from Pixabay

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