Gonepteryx rhamni (go-NEP-tuh-ricks RAM-ny)

Brimstone Female, Crawley, Sussex 18-April-06
Photo © Vince Massimo

60 - 74mm

Checklist Number

Family:Pieridae (Duponchel, 1835)
Subfamily:Coliadinae (Swainson, 1827)
Tribe:Gonepterygini ()
Genus:Gonepteryx (Leach, 1815)
Species:rhamni (Linnaeus, 1758)
Subspecies:rhamni (Linnaeus, 1758)
 gravesi (Huggins, 1956b)

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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.

Gonepteryx rhamni ssp. rhamni

This species was first defined in Linnaeus (1758) as shown here (type locality: Europe, Africa).

The population found in England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands is represented by the nominate subspecies.

Brimstone, male, Kithurst Hill, West Sussex, 20 Aug 2013

Photo © Colin Knight

Brimstone male - Coulsdon, Surrey 12-Aug-2012

Male Underside
Photo © Vince Massimo

Clouded Yellow female, Cissbury Ring, West Sussex, 6 Aug 2013

Photo © Colin Knight

Brimstone- 5D35122 Lincs Aug 2013

Female Underside
Photo © IainLeach

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Gonepteryx rhamni ssp. gravesi

This subspecies was first defined in Huggins (1956b).

This subspecies represents the population found in Ireland, and exhibits minor colour differences with the subspecies rhamni which, based on the formal description, are:

  • 1. The male upperside is slightly paler.
  • 2. The male hindwing upperside is greener.
  • 3. The male forewing underside is greenish white in the central area, almost as in the female, rather than suffused with yellow.
  • 4. The female forewing upperside is bordered with greenish yellow, particularly at the apex.
  • 5. The female hindwing upperside is strongly suffused with greenish-yellow.

Gonepteryx rhamni ssp. gravesi (Huggins, 1956)

♂. Upperside fore wings as in G.rhamni rhamni but slightly paler. Hind wings lighter and greener. Underside fore wings have the middle portion below the costal area greenish white, almost as in the female. This portion is strongly suffused with yellow in English examples.

♀. Fore wings upperside bordered with greenish yellow, particularly at the apex. Hind wings whole area strongly suffused with green yellow.

Type ♂, Kildare 26.viii.16 (D.Westropp). Type ♀, King's County 1900 (D.Westropp).


Brimstone - male - Boston, Clare - 10-Aug-13

Male Underside
Photo © Pete Eeles


Female Underside

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Conservation Status

The status of the Brimstone is considered stable and it is not, therefore, considered a species of conservation concern.

UK BAP StatusDistribution Trend (%)Population Trend (%)
Not Listed

The table above shows the distribution and population trends of species regularly found in the British Isles. The distribution trend represents a comparison between data for the periods 1995-1999 and 2005-2009. The information provided is taken from the Butterfly Conservation report The State of the UK's Butterflies 2011. The UK BAP status is taken from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) (2007 review).


The Brimstone is a great wanderer and can be found in almost any habitat, from chalk downland to woodland rides to gardens.



Click here to see the distribution of this species or here to see the distribution of this species together with specific site information overlaid. Alternatively, select one of the sites listed below.

Arnside Knott, Attenborough Nature Reserve, Aylesbeare Common, Badbury Rings, Banstead Downs, Banstead Woods, Barkbooth Lot, Bedfont Lakes Country Park LNR, Bingham Linear Park, Boherbawn Lower, Borthwood, Bovey Valley Woodlands, Bryncelyn Hall, Craigavon Lakes, Danes Moss, Darley, Denbies Hillside, Devil's Ditch, Dromore Wood, Durlston NNR, Fermyn Wood, Fleam Dyke, Gait Barrows, Higher Hyde, Horsenden Hill, Hounslow Heath LNR, Hurney's Point, Hutchinsons Bank, Hutton Roof Crags, Hyde, Latterbarrow, Latton Woods, Lavernock, Leighton Moss, Lough George, Lullymore, Malling Down, Mansmead wood, Mayford Pond, Midgham Lakes, Mill Hill, Monk Wood, Moors Valley Country Park, Moss Field, Mount Caburn, Mullagh More, Oaken Wood, Old Down, Basingstoke, Pamber Forest, Rookery, Roudsea Wood NNR, Ryton Woods Meadows, Stockbridge Down, Tophill Low, Viking Field/LesleySears, Warton Crag, Whitbarrow Scar, Whixall Moss, Willesley Wood, Winsdon Hill

Life Cycle

This single-brooded butterfly can be found in most months of the year, although peak flight times are in April and May as the hibernating adults emerge, and again in August when their offspring reach adulthood. Autumn is a good time to see this species as the adults are avid nectar-feeders as they build up their fat reserves in preparation for hibernation.

Gonepteryx rhamni ssp. rhamni

Gonepteryx rhamni ssp. gravesi

The chart(s) above have been correlated with the phenology plot below, taken from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. The blue line gives average counts over the full data set from 1976 to date, and the red line gives the average for the last year.


Newly-emerged adults spend much of their time feeding, where they always settle with their wings closed, showing a preference for purple and nectar-rich flowers such as Thistle and Devil's-bit Scabious. The long proboscis of this species also allows the butterfly to take nectar from flowers, such as Teasel, that are beyond the reach of many other butterfly species. With the approach of autumn, the butterfly settles down to hibernate - often among leaves of Ivy, Holly or Bramble.

Adults emerging in the spring nectar on a variety of available flowers, such as Dandelion, Primrose, Cowslip, Bugle and Bluebell. They can often be seen resting with their wings at right angles to the sun to gain the full effect of the warm rays at this relatively-cool time of year.

Males are the first to be seen in the spring and can be seen patrolling woodland edges, hedgerows and other habitats looking for a mate. When a virgin female is found, male and female fly high into the air, often out of sight, before tumbling back down into a bush where they then mate. Females are quite selective about the plants on which they lay - even on sites with many Buckthorns present, only a very small proportion of these will tend to be used by females in the area.

Adults feed primarily on Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.). Betony (Stachys officinalis), Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus), Bugle (Ajuga reptans), Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris), Cowslip (Primula veris), Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.), Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), Knapweeds (Centaurea spp.), Marjoram (Origanum vulgare), Primrose (Primula vulgaris), Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Red Campion (Silene dioica), Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.) and Vetches (Vicia spp.) are also used.

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The skittle-shaped eggs are laid singly on the undersides of the youngest Buckthorn leaves at all heights on the foodplant. Although several eggs may be found together, this is either the result of different females using the same leaf, or the same female revisiting the spot at a different time. Newly-laid eggs are pale green, turning yellow and eventually grey as the larva develops inside. This stage lasts between 1 and 2 weeks.

Brimstone egg - Magdalen Hill Down, Hampshire 15-April-2014

Photo © Neil Hulme

Brimstone ova (freshly laid) - Crawley, Sussex 24-April-2015

Photo © Vince Massimo

Brimstone ovum - Blanes Botanical Garden, Catalonia, Spain. 30.03.15

Photo © Tony Moore

Brimstone - ovum - Bentley Wood - 24-Apr-04

Photo © Pete Eeles

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The newly-emerged larva moves to the upperside of the leaf and starts to feed. Despite their superb camouflage, larvae can be relatively-easy to find since they nibble away the edges of the leaf on which they are resting and the feeding damage gives their presence away. When at rest, the larva has a curious habit of lifting the front half of its body off the leaf. The larva goes through 4 moults in total and this stage lasts about a month.

The primary larval foodplants are Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).

Brimstone larva, Noar Hill, 30/05/2015

Photo © Pauline

Brimstone larva (pre moult) - Crawley, Sussex 6-June-2015

Photo © Vince Massimo

Brimstone - larva - Pamber Forest - 25-Jun-04

Photo © Pete Eeles

Brimstone - larva - Pamber Forest - 19-Jun-04

Photo © Pete Eeles

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The fully-grown larva usually pupates away from the foodplant and, like the adult butterfly, the pupa is a curious shape, looking like a curled leaf. It is secured to the underside of a leaf or plant stem by a silk girdle and the cremaster. Before the adult butterfly emerges, the yellow spot found in the centre of the forewing can be clearly seen through the pupal case. The pupal stage lasts about 2 weeks.

Brimstone pupa (reared) - Caterham, Surrey 17-June-2012

Photo © Vince Massimo

Brimstone pupa (36 hours before hatching) reared - Caterham, Surrey 26-June-2012

Photo © Vince Massimo

Brimstone emerging - Crawley, Sussex 27-June-2015

Photo © Vince Massimo

Brimstone pupa (15 hours before emergence) - Crawley, Sussex 26-June-2015

Photo © Vince Massimo

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Description to be completed.

This section shows those aberrations for which there is a corresponding image. Click here to see the descriptions of other aberrations for this species.

Similar Species

No similar species found.


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The species description provided here references the following publications:

Duponchel (1835) Duponchel, P.A.J. (1835) Histoire naturelle des lépidoptères ou papillons de France, par M. J.-B. Godart. Continuée par P.-A.-J. Duponchel. Diurnes. Supplément aux tomes premier et deuxième.
Huggins (1956b) Huggins, H.C. (1956) The Irish race of Gonepteryx rhamni (Lep. Pieridae). The Entomologist.
Leach (1815) Leach (1815) In Brewster: The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia.
Linnaeus (1758) Linnaeus, C. (1758) Systema Naturae. Edition 10.
Swainson (1827) Swainson, W. (1827) A Sketch of the Natural Affinities of the Lepidoptera Diurna of Latreille. The Philosophical magazine : or Annals of chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, natural history and general science.