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Gatekeeper or Meadow Brown?

Gatekeeper Butterfly – Pyronia tithonus

Pyronia tithonus

This is the Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus formerly and perhaps more appropriately known as the Hedge Brown or ‘Hedge Eye’. This butterfly can only be confused with a female Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina. However, in comparison it is much smaller and overall a much brighter orange. Where the Meadow Brown has one white spot in the centre of the black eye-spot on the upper wing, the Gatekeeper, as you can see, almost always has two. Also, with wings folded the Gatekeeper has a row of small white dots on its lower underwing, whereas the latter, if it has any, not all do, will have small dark dots. Plus, you are much more likely to find it like this, wings wide-open, basking on a leaf in a hedgerow soaking up the sun.

But beware, both species are subject to variation. I’ve seen Meadow Brown’s with two white spots and Gatekeeper’s with one. So it’s worth keeping a look out for aberrations. If you are lucky you may even find one of the heavily spotted multiocellata variations which can be very pretty indeed. Just remember to carry your camera, because of course I didn’t.

Down south it is reasonably common, particularly in Devon and Dorset. Here in south Wiltshire it’s been a frequent and welcome visitor to my garden in the past few weeks due to the warm weather. But the further north you go the scarcer it becomes as the cooler it gets. To thrive it needs warm springs and hot summers. The female pictured above is larger and duller than the smaller, brighter male, which in addition can be identified by the dark sex brands on the upper surface of its forewings.

The more observant amongst you may have noticed a small red dot on the left side of the head. This is the parasitic mite Trombidium breei. It’s not that easy to see at this resolution but there are another two. One just behind the one on the head and another half-hidden about half way down the right hand side of its furry body. As far as I can tell as long as the butterfly does not get overly infested they do not seem to cause any lasting harm.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Johnson #

    I’m a novice at this so maybe completely wrong but…….on the allotment over the past few weeks I have regularly seen butterflies that look exactly like a Gatekeeper but they have no white dots in the black spot on their wings. It is solid black and more circular than the black spot in the photo at the top of the page. Is this a different type of butterfly or some sort of aberation? There are plenty of them….all alike. I cought two of them today in my polytunnel so had the chance to have a really good look at them before releasing them

    August 8, 2013
    • Hello Robert, It’s possible to find specimens with rounder black spots and with multiple black spots. In the aberrant form, multiocellata, the other black spots are usually smaller. I haven’t seen specimens without white spots and would imagine these would be very rare. However I have seen specimens where the white spots are so tiny or faint as to be almost invisible. Any chance of getting a photo? One with the wings open and another of the underwings would be best for a positive ID.

      August 8, 2013
      • Robert Johnson #

        Hi Marc, OK I’ll try to get some photos; they’re very difficult to get close to but with a bit of luck I may find one in my polytunnel again 🙂

        August 9, 2013
  2. That’ll be great. Sounds like they could be a rare aberration. You may find it easiest if you attempt the shot early in the morning when it’s coolest. The butterfly will be less active then.

    August 9, 2013
  3. Spotter #

    Thank you for explaining the red dot. I saw two meadow browns today, one with red spots on both sides of its head, the other with a single dot half way down its body. I was mystified by the dots but thanks to Google I found your post. This was on Haresfield Hill in the Cotswolds. Also saw marbled whites and a skipper.

    July 20, 2014
    • Hello Spotter, They are commonly found on Marbled Whites and Skippers too!

      July 21, 2014

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