Purple emperor



The purple emperor is a medium-sized butterfly living in northern and central Europe and Asia. Their current range includes most of central Europe, small parts of France, Spain, and Portugal, and it extends all the way to Korea and China in Asia. When viewed at a certain angle, the top of the male’s wings look an iridescent blue or purple. The picture below on the left gives a better view of the purple/blue color. Either the one on the right depicts the wings being seen at the wrong angle or it shows a female. Only males have the bright color, but the females are patterned the same as males are except without the iridescence. Inexperienced butterfly watchers often mistake the white admiral butterfly with this species. This is because they have similar coloring, and they both fly around trees at the same time of year. As you can see in these pictures, these butterflies have eyespots on both sides of their wings. On the blue side of their wings, the eyespots are on the bottom and very near the center. On the other side of the wings, the eyespots are about half way up the wing and are closer to the edge of the wings.400px-Apatura_iris_Weinsberg_20080614_5450px-Suur-kiirgliblikas_(Apatura_iris)


Purple emperors range in size from 2.4 to 2.9 inches (6.2-7.4 cm) in length. Males have a wingspan of 2.8 to 3.1 inches (7-8 cm). Females, which are larger, have a 3.1 to 3.6 inch (8-9.2 cm) wingspan. These butterflies are the second largest ones in the UK after only the Swallowtail.


Unlike most butterflies, purple emperors do not drink nectar from flowers. Instead, these insects typically fly high in the trees feeding on the honeydew produced by aphids and on tree sap. Occasionally the males will visit ground level in order to obtain the needed salts from dung, urine, animal carcasses, or the surface of roads. More than six males have been seen feasting on the carcass of a deer at the same time.

History of range

The purple emperor used to be relatively abundant in both England and Wales. Their range however has shrunk drastically over the past century. They are now only found in the extreme southern part of England and do not inhabit Wales any more. They have not even been seen in Wales since the 1930’s. Recently, their range has expanded gradually, but it is unknown if this represents just a temporary change or a long-term recovery to original abundance.

Status and threats

Neither the IUCN Red List nor CITES has classified this animal in their status reports. They are however listed on the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. This act regulates what humans are legally able to do to animals based on certain “Schedules.” The purple Emperor is listed on Schedule 5 on this act. This makes it illegal to kill, injure, or capture any of these animals. As with many animals, the largest threat to these animals is habitat loss. Even where there is suitable habitat, the lack of necessary willows for the caterpillars to live on hiders reproduction. Unsuitable management, presence of deer, and their short lives prevent the willows from being suitable hosts to purple emperor caterpillars. Pollution also is a threat to these insects, and natural predators include bats, frogs, and birds.

Mating, eggs, and young

These butterflies mate from late June to mid-August. Females lay up to one hundred bright green eggs singly on the top of willow plant leaves. Two week after being laid, the eggs hatch, and the caterpillars begin to feed on the willow plant. These caterpillars look like a mix between a katydid and a slug, looking mainly like the former, but without pronounced legs leg the latter. They instead move around on the stubby, barely-visible feet that most caterpillars have. The caterpillars also have a pair of fleshy horns on their head, and these horns are tipped with red. The caterpillars are also speckled with tiny yellow spots. During the fall, the larvae caterpillars hibernate, but they do not yet build a chrysalis. Instead they take refuge in the forks of the willow branches. In April, they wake up from hibernation and start feeding again. Towards the end of June, they finally form their chrysalis. This structure hangs under the leaves. About two weeks later, the adults emerge, mate, and die in the winter. Although they live for just about a year, only a few months of that is spent as an adult, and some is spent in hibernation.

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Photo credits:

  • Purple emperor – Rosenzweig
  • Purple emperor back – Rosenzweig
  • Purple emperor back dull – Lihtsaltmaria
  • Mystery animal – Public domain
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