Seasonal polyphenism in animal colour patterns indicates that temporal variation in selection pressures maintains phenotypic plasticity. Spring generation of the polyphenic European map butterfly Araschnia levana has an orange–black fritillary-like pattern whilst individuals of the summer generation are black with white bands across the wings. What selects for the colour difference is unknown. Because predation is a major selection pressure for insect coloration, we first tested whether map butterfly coloration could have a warning function (i.e. whether the butterflies are unpalatable to birds). In a following field experiment with butterfly dummies we tested whether the spring form is better protected than the summer form from predators in the spring, and vice versa in the summer. The butterflies were palatable to birds (blue tits Cyanistes caeruleus) and in the field the spring and summer form dummies were attacked equally irrespective of season. Therefore, we found no evidence that the map butterfly is warning-coloured or that seasonal polyphenism is an adaptation to avian predation. Because insect coloration has multiple functions and map butterfly coloration is linked to morphology, life history and development it is likely that the interplay of several selection pressures explains the evolution of colour polyphenism. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ••, ••–••.