Small Copper Butterfly: Identification, Life Cycle, and Behavior

In this article, you’ll gain comprehensive knowledge about the Small Copper, a beautiful butterfly species. Explore its classification, distribution, and main characteristics.

Discover its life cycle, behavior, diet, and the main threats it faces.

Small Copper butterfly

What is the Classification of Small Copper?

The Small Copper butterfly, or the Lycaena Phlaeas, holds an esteemed place in the scientific realm of taxonomy.

Hailing from the family Lycaenidae, it’s part of a widespread group known as the Gossamer-winged butterflies.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Lycaenidae
  • Genus: Lycaena
  • Species: L. Phlaeas

As per the binomial nomenclature, the term Lycaena Phlaeas distinguishes it from other species in the Lycaena genus.

This classification is integral as it combines specificity with breadth, unifying the Small Copper as an insect, an arthropod, and indeed, as part of the broad conceptual kingdom of animals.

Understanding this classification not only allows better identification of the Small Copper but also paves the way for discussions about its behavior and life cycle.

The Small Copper is a distinctive species with unique characteristics, from its vibrant color patterns to its specific life cycle and mating rituals.

Its name ‘Small Copper’ is a direct reference to its modest size and the bright, lustrous copper coloration that marks its wings, granting it a radiant presence in its habitats.

What is the Distribution of Small Copper?

The Small Copper butterfly, a vibrant and striking little insect, has quite a broad global distribution. Found extensively throughout Europe, Asia all the way to Japan, and North America, this species displays a remarkable ability to adapt to varied landscapes. They inhabit a wide spectrum of environments.

Their preferred environments include dry, open areas such as heathlands, coastal dunes, and quarries.

These terrain types afford them their preferred grassy habitat where they lay eggs and find nectar-filled flowers for sustenance. Also, they can inhabit places like city parks and gardens, given the right conditions.

Small Coppers tend to not roam far from their chosen living spots. Their population density varies from location to location. They are more widespread in Southern and Central Europe.

In North America, they tend to inhabit the northern regions. These butterflies can ascend great altitudes, being found even at 10,000 feet (around 3,000 meters) in the Alpine regions.

Favored by sunny weather, Small Coppers hibernate during the winter as larva. When the spring sun emerges, so do they, reappearing to continue their life cycle.

This ability to hibernate allows them a greater geographic spread as they can survive colder areas.

Thus, the Small Copper, underlining its hardy nature, and showcasing admirable adaptability spans continents and climates in its distribution.

What are the Main Characteristics of the Small Copper?

The Small Copper, scientifically named Lycaena phlaeas, is primarily recognized for its vibrant colors. The striking hues of orange and brown accompanied by dark spots on the wings make it instantly noticeable. The most telling physical trait is its size: a diminutive 1.26 inch (32 millimeter), true to its name.

  • Body: Its body is small but robust. The head is adorned with a pair of antennae, often held in a forward direction.
  • Wings: The upper side of the wing displays a bright coppery orange color. The edges are dark, with contrasting spots creating a pleasing pattern.
  • Size: With a wingspan reaching just over 1 inch (25 mm), it is indeed small. However, it’s crucial not to let the size confuse you. The Small Copper is known for its territorial and fiercely aggressive behavior.

The variety in its colorings and patterns can seem puzzling for the untrained eye. Females usually have a range of blue spots, while males are more monochromatic. For both sexes, the winter form shows less black on the hindwings – a seasonal adaptation.

The Small Copper isn’t just a pretty face. Its fast flight and sharp vision give it an edge, making it one of the most vigilant species of butterflies.

Not to forget its survival instinct, which is on full display with the unique mimicry behaviors in threat situations.

In conclusion, the Small Copper’s unique characteristics – a petite body, colorful wings, fast flight, and strong defense mechanisms – make it a fascinating subject for butterfly enthusiasts and researchers alike.

How to Identify Male and Female Small Copper?

Recognizing the difference between male and female Small Copper butterflies is straightforward once you know the key characteristics to look out for.

To start, both genders possess a vibrant orange color, distinct black spots, and brown edging on their wings.

However, the males have a classier, more intense orange color compared to females. Their color tends to resonate more due to their need to attract females.

Meanwhile, females exhibit a slightly faded, more delicate shade of orange. This color distinction is your primary clue for gender identification.

Next, pay attention to the size. The females are slightly larger than males. Males typically reach a wingspan of about 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 to 3.8 cm), while females encompass a wider wingspan of 1.5 to 1.7 inches (3.8 to 4.3 cm).

Lastly, during mating season, typically between May and July, observing behavior comes in handy.

Males exhibit more aggressive, territorial behaviors, often seen zipping around buttercups, daisies, and thistles.

Conversely, females are more often found casually feeding on nectar-rich flowers. Utilizing these clues can help you accurately identify the Small Copper gender.

What is the Mating Ritual of Small Copper?

When the warmer months arrive, typically spring and summer, it marks the time for the small copper butterfly to participate in its unique mating ritual.

The female small copper plays coy, often hiding among plants and waiting for the male to spot her. The ambitious males are seen hovering over probable spots, a behavior known as patrolling, seeking out potential mates.

Once a prospective female is spotted, the male takes a keen interest, embarking on an elaborate dance. He will fly around her in a manner akin to dancing, showing off his bright underwing colors, reflecting sunlight in a captivating display.

This act is not only mesmerizing but serves a practical role as well, illustrating his strength and vigor to the female.

The potential female mate, in return, raises her abdomen in an upward angle, signaling her readiness and acceptance.

The male, pleased with her acceptance, bounds towards her, and together they extricate themselves from sight. Subsequently, they copulate and the female readies herself to lay her eggs, thus continuing the lifecycle of the small copper butterfly.

Within this courtship process, the small copper butterfly emphasizes persistence and vibrancy, illustrating the fascinating complexity within such a petite creature.

This underlines the significant role that mating rituals play in the continuation of a species, and the perpetuation of its beautiful presence in our ecosystem.

What Does the Caterpillar of Small Copper Look Like?

The caterpillar of a small copper, known scientifically as Lycaena phlaeas, can only truly be appreciated when viewed closely. Photographs may not do justice to the intricate patterns and color combinations found on these caterpillars. Let’s delve into what sets this distinctive creature apart.

Distinctive Features

The caterpillar is primarily a vibrant green in color. This immediately distinguishes it from a majority of other species. As it matures, tones of yellow creep in, blending seamlessly with the initial green hue resulting in a lovely color gradient.

The body is short and stout, covered in tiny, white hairs. Rounded and segmented in appearance, you’ll notice delicate black markings adorning the body too. The interplay of color and pattern occurring on this little creature is quite spectacular.


They’re noticeably modest in size. On average, a fully grown small copper caterpillar measures anywhere from 0.4 to 0.8 inches (1 to 2 centimeters).

The most striking visual feature, perhaps, is the line of white markings running down its back. This ‘dorsal line’ is often continuous, extending from the head all the way to the tip of the tail.

Every single detail, as small as it may be, gives the small copper caterpillar a uniqueness that isn’t replicated easily. All these features together combine to form a beautiful creature, as enchanting as it is intricate.

What is the Life Cycle of Small Copper?

Understanding the life cycle of the Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) is essential. At each stage, from egg to adult, the behaviours and characteristics are unique.

Eggs are laid singularly on the underside of the food plants. They are round, and measure about 0.5mm (0.02 inches) in size.

Once the larvae hatch, they feed on their host plant. They have a bright green body with dark, broken lines running down the sides, and grow to be around 13 mm (0.5 inch) long.

After ample feeding, the larvae form a pupa. This stage is stationary, as the insect is transforming into an adult. It is decorated with beautiful golden markings, which is a strategic camouflage.

The adult Small Copper, known as imago, emerges from the pupa. The adults are the ones involved in mating and laying eggs, which restarts this cyclical process.

The Small Copper typically has two to three generations a year, depending on the region’s climate. It’s fascinating that a single species can go through such drastic transformations throughout their life.

What Is the Average Life Expectancy of a Small Copper?

Small Coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) have a relatively short lifespan, in alignment with most butterfly species. From egg to beautiful butterfly, the average life expectancy is between four to six weeks, divided among different life stages – egg, caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly. Let’s journey through every stage:

  • Eggs last around 1 to 2 weeks before hatching. The laid eggs remain dormant during fall and winter, only hatching in spring.
  • Caterpillars can live anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. It’s a critical time that requires escaping predators and ample food.
  • The pupa, or chrysalis, stage typically lasts for 2 weeks.
  • Finally, Small Copper butterflies live just 1 to 2 weeks in the wild.

These four to six crucial weeks are dedicated to fueling the cycle of life for the Small Copper population.

What Does the Diet of a Small Copper Consist Of?

The diet of a small copper butterfly is surprisingly diverse for an insect of its size. As an adult, the small copper feeds primarily on nectar, sourcing it from a variety of flowers.

Some of its preferred choices include dandelion, thistle, and clover, but it maintains a flexible diet and can adapt to other sources if necessary.

However, the nutritional requirements shift dramatically during the caterpillar stage. The caterpillar of the small copper feeds almost exclusively on sorrel and dock leaves.

These plants are abundant in most butterfly habitats, providing a consistent food source. It munches away at the underside of leaves, seeking out tender, fresh growth.

Interestingly, the small copper has been designed to survive periods of food scarcity. During harsh seasons when vegetation is sparse, they can stay in the caterpillar stage for an extended period.

This ability to halt its development ensures it can wait out unfavorable conditions, securing its chances of survival.

Despite having a relatively adaptable diet, the numbers of small coppers can lessen if faced with a shortage of their favored floral or leaf feed.

Hence, maintaining their natural habitats with their preferred floral nectar and leaves is vital to ensure a steady diet for these striking butterflies.

As you learn about these captivating creatures, understanding their dietary needs becomes an essential consideration.

By planting their preferred flowers and leaving docks and sorrels untouched, you help to conserve these remarkable insects.

Which Plants Serve as the Primary Hosts for Small Copper?

Firstly, let’s talk about the primary hosts for Small Copper. Sorrel and dock plants top this list. These plants have a high preference among Small Copper larvae due to their richness in nutrients, which helps in healthy growth.

  • Rumex acetosa, also known as common sorrel or garden sorrel, serves as a primary host. This perennial herb is preferred by larvae creating an interdependence between the plant and the butterfly.
  • Rumex obtusifolius or broad-leaved dock is another plant that is vital for the Small Copper. Not only do they feed on these plants, but the butterflies also lay their eggs on them.

Sometimes, you will see them on other types of plants as well. However, sorrel and dock varieties remain their mainstay sources of nutrition.

The female Small Copper butterfly often looks for young, non-flowering sorrel or dock plants to lay their eggs. These plants are less likely to die back before the hatching of the eggs ensuring higher survival rates for the larvae.

Do keep a lookout for Small Copper butterflies if you happen to foster these kinds of plants in your garden. They are not a mere sight to savor but an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

What are the Unique Mimicry Behaviors in Small Copper?

Small Copper butterflies exhibit unique mimicry behaviors that contribute to their survival and reproductive patterns. Firstly, they use their vibrant coloration to mimic larger, more threatening species and ward off predators.

This technique is often called Batesian mimicry, a deceptive biological strategy for survival.

In addition to color-based mimicry, the Small Copper implements a fascinating behavior called positional mimicry. It is noticed that when a Small Copper rests on a flower or leaf, it positions its body to match the shape and line angles of its backdrop accurately.

This illusion of merging with its surroundings is particularly effective in concealing them from predators and ensuring their safety.

The Small Copper also deploys an interesting behavior of mimicry in motion. When flew, it frequently changes its flight pattern to mimic the erratic, unpredictable fluttering of leaves in the wind.

This makes it difficult for predators to follow or capture them, thereby increasing their chances of survival.

Lastly, let’s mention the egg mimicry phenomenon. The eggs of Small Copper bear a striking resemblance to certain dewdrops or plant seeds, making it difficult for predators and parasitic insects to distinguish and predate on them.

This camouflage technique significantly boosts the survival rate of their eggs, aiding in the propagation of the species.

What Are the Main Threats to Small Copper Populations?

The small copper butterfly, despite its vibrant colors and tiny size, is under several significant threats. Human activities remain the foremost threats.

These human-induced threats include:

  • Habitat Loss: Changes in the landscape pose a major concern. With the continual expansion of human settlements, their host plants and needed habitats are rapidly disappearing.
  • Agricultural Practices: Intense farming methods also pose a threat to the small copper populations. Pesticides and herbicides used in farming can harm these butterflies directly or their host plants.

Climate change further presents another serious threat. The small copper butterfly prefers warmer climates.

Thus, drastic changes in weather patterns can detrimentally impact their life cycle. Additionally, the decrease in genetic diversity due to isolated populations leaves them more susceptible to diseases or changes in their environment.

Besides, an alarming decrease has been noticed due to predation. These small creatures fall prey to several birds, spiders, and even some carnivorous insects.

Efforts for conservation measures should be amplified to ensure the small coppers’ survival. Strengthening the current protective laws and fostering sustainable human practices can immensely contribute to safeguarding these creatures.


In conclusion, the Small Copper butterfly is a fascinating creature with its vivid coloration, unique life cycle, and intriguing behaviors.

Understanding and appreciating its significance can add to our collective efforts in biodiversity conservation.

What are some of your thoughts or experiences with Small Copper butterflies? Please leave a comment below.

Butterflies   Updated: July 8, 2023
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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