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Are butterflies the UK's most beautiful endangered species? | Dan Flenley

Half of our butterflies are under threat of extinction, and more than 70% are in decline – capture their beauty and share your pictures of them on our Flickr group

A cautious flap; a gentle flutter. Quivering wings and tentative antennae. Striking black and white; brightest blue and red; creamy yellow, iridescent green. A carnival of colours, a parade of personalities, an intriguing selection of shades and textures: our butterflies are with us again.

Once described as "self-propelled flowers", what butterflies do is no less fascinating than the gowns they wear. They feed, fly and fight, they court and pair. They get up to strange things in mud puddles and show all the investment skill of your average Duncan Bannatyne in finding the right place for their eggs. They even metamorphose.

Most of the UK's butterflies spend the majority of the year as caterpillars or chrysalises. They wait till spring or summer to make the transition to a relatively brief adult life. Some, though, overwinter as hibernating adults before emerging in time for flowers and sunshine. (Among these are well-known species such as the peacock, with its Impressionist blue eye-spots.) Yet others – including the painted lady – migrate here to enjoy the British summer.

To indulge in some butterfly photography this May, a good back garden is no mean place to start. Nectar plants such as perennial wallflower and ragged-robin will attract species including peacocks and large ("cabbage") and small whites. The first brood of the tiny, energetic holly blue is easy to find (the clue is in the name) in more southerly parts of the country, if not so easy to photograph. The main arrival of red admirals should be underway by late May.

Venturing a little further afield, wild, open places with rough, "messy" vegetation are excellent for getting to know butterflies such as small copper, common blue and orange tip.

Wetter areas are home to the silken surfaces of green-veined whites, while some heathlands host the dazzling green hairstreak. Go somewhere scrubby and you might also see a brimstone, a simply exquisite imitation of a strongly-veined leaf.

Head to one of the country's special butterfly places and – if the weather plays along – you will have so much more to take in. Combine the spectacular, shining adonis blue (late May) and chocolate-and-marshmallows grizzled skipper, with big landscapes at Fontmell Down or Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Match the artsy underwing of the pearl-bordered fritillary with the breathtaking views from the Morecambe Bay Limestones, just below the Lake District. Norfolk sites such as Hickling Broad will see probably our most photogenic butterfly – the swallowtail – begin to emerge at the end of the month.

Butterfly Conservation maintains a network of nature reserves specially managed for threatened butterflies and moths, and would be delighted to tell you more about sites in your area.

Good butterfly shots are made that much easier by choosing the right day and time. A hot day with full sun is not ideal, as the subjects will be so busy zipping about that they won't have time to stop for pictures. Choose a warm day with spells of both cloud and sunshine. Butterflies have a late-afternoon slow-down which offers a handy viewing alternative to a 5am start.

Use a long lens – it will benefit both you and the butterfly by allowing you to keep your distance. A less intrusive approach means more shots for the photographer and, importantly, less stress for the star of the show. The reduced depth of focus on the long lens will also help zero the focus in on the butterfly. The higher shutter speed you'll need may, though, make getting enough light difficult.

While the colourful upper-sides of our best-loved species may be instantly familiar, the rest of their bodies hold reward, too. The underwings of the vanessids – the red admiral's family – possess a cryptic magnificence.

The blues have peculiarly furry bodies and rather cute faces. Caterpillars and pupae furnish further realms of opportunity, and the curious world of butterfly eggs poses a fine challenge for fans of the seriously macro.

Half of our butterflies are considered threatened, and over 70% are currently declining. This is all the more disconcerting if we consider that butterflies are not only precious parts in the intricately-wrought fabric of our natural environment, but also valuable indicators of how that whole fabric is doing. We ignore them at no small cost.

How to help? One way is by inspiring others with the beauty of butterflies. Make a point of getting out this month and capturing their radiance on camera.

Share your photos of butterflies on our Flickr group throughout May - we'll feature the best on, and maybe the print edition of the Guardian too

• Dan Flenley is a media volunteer for Butterfly Conservation's Lancashire branch. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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