We amplified microsatellite DNA from museum specimens over 100 years old of the adonis blue butterfly, Polyommatus bellargus. These results were compared with butterfly samples taken from the same site near Folkestone in southern UK in 1998/9, 200 generations later, and with samples from other extant UK populations. Dramatic changes in allele frequencies have occurred over time, which is indicative of substantial genetic drift or extinction/recolonization. Patterns of heterozygosity in the 1998/9 sample are indicative of a past bottleneck, and one was known to have occurred in the late 1970s in this and many other UK populations. One allele present at high frequency in 1896 was not detected in any extant UK population, suggesting that it may have been lost from the UK (a ‘ghost’ allele), although the allele may well persist elsewhere within the range of the species. Although the present study is relatively small in scale (20 museum specimens from one site), it serves to reinforce the enormous potential of museum specimens in well represented taxa such as butterflies for examining the effects of demographic events spanning many years. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 88, 447–452.