America’s favorite butterflies: big, bold, beautiful

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Most butterflies are beautiful, but some stand out above the others. Here are some of the biggest and boldest, the ones we love most. Easy to spot and identify, they practically scream “Look at me,” as they elegantly move from flower to flower in our gardens. Learn about these beauties, where they live, their habitat, favorite nectar and host plants, what months they fly and more:

Monarch

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Nearly everyone’s favorite butterfly is the Monarch (Danaus plexippus). Their spring and fall migrations between the U.S. and Mexico are eagerly anticipated by millions of gardeners and wildlife watchers on both sides of the border. (Small populations hibernate in southern California.) They begin their journey northward in March, with females pausing along the way to lay eggs on milkweed plants. They travel leisurely — they must not arrive at their destinations before milkweed plants leaf out, as their caterpillars when they hatch, will need to feed on the leaves.

Predators avoid eating adult Monarchs and their caterpillars because their bodies store distasteful cardiac glycosides that are contained in the milkweed plants on which they feed. The bright coloring of the adult serves as a visual warning to the predators. Widespread destruction of milkweed plants seriously threatens them.

Foods: Adults not only lay eggs on milkweeds but also sip nectar from the flowers. Other nectar plants include Butterfly Weed, Bee Balm, verbena, and phlox. Habitat: Urban and suburban gardens, croplands, prairies. Wingspan: 3-1/2 to 4 inches (8.9 to 10 cm). Pictorial of Monarch life cycle (photos clockwise from top-left: Derek Ramsey / Wiki – GFDL: Lisa Brown / Flickr – cc by-nc 2.0; WW)

Queen

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Queen Butterflies (Danaus gilippus) aren’t only females; both sexes are called Queens. They look similar to the Monarch. They’re very alike in another way, too: Their bold colors are a warning, “Don’t eat me, I taste bad!” If a bird tastes one — either the adult or caterpillar — it won’t again. 

Queens range across the southern U.S., occasionally in the Plains, and down to Central America. They fly year-round in the South and from July to August in the northern part of their range.

Foods: Adults nectar on many flowers, including milkweeds, dogbanes, fogfruit and Shepherd’s Needle. Host plants: Milkweeds. Habitat: Wherever milkweeds grow — urban and suburban gardens, meadows, fields, marshes, deserts, forest edges. Wingspan: 2-5/8 to 3-7/8 inches (6.9 to 9.9 cm). (photos clockwise from top-left: Ken Slade / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; Bill Bouton / EOL – cc by-sa 2.0; Mary Keim / EOL – cc by-nc-sa 3.0)

Viceroy

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The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is another Monarch mimic, although smaller. They range from Canada’s Northwest Territories south along the eastern edge of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains, and east to the eastern U.S., as well as south into Mexico. They produce two to three generations a year and overwinter as chrysalides wrapped within a rolled leaf tip for shelter.

Foods: Early in the season, when flowers aren’t widely available, adults feed on aphid honeydew, dung, carrion and decaying fungi. Later generations take nectar from a variety of flowers, including aster, goldenrod, Joe-pye Weed and Canada Thistle. Host plants: Willows, poplars, and cottonwoods. Caterpillars feed at night. They hang balls of leaf bits, dung, or other matter, from the leaf they’re eating, perhaps to distract predators. 
Habitat: Moist open and shrubby areas, including urban and suburban yards. Wingspan: 2-1/4 to 3-1/4 inches (5.7 to 8.3 cm).  (photos clockwise from top-left: Tom Murray / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc 2.0; Tom Murray / BugGuide; WW)

GIANT SWALLOWTAIL

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You won’t overlook this butterfly! With a wingspan from 4 to 6-1/4 inches (10 to 15.9 cm), the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is the largest butterfly in the U.S. They’re found across most of the country. In the north, they have two broods from May to September. They’re active year-round in southern Florida and the Deep South.

Foods: Adults take nectar from a variety of plants and shrubs, including lantana, azalea, Dame’s Rocket, goldenrod and Swamp Milkweed. Host plants: Citrus species, including orange trees, prickly ash, and rue. The caterpillars, commonly called “Orange Dogs,” are sometimes seen as pests because they can quickly defoliate a small plant. The caterpillars appear different in each of their larval stages but always resemble bird droppings.
Habitat: Orange groves, urban flower gardens, open woodlands and nearby fields, and rocky and sandy hillsides near streams or gullies. (photos clockwise from top-left: Stepanka Nemcova / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; Thomas Bresson / EOL – cc by 2.0; Richard Crook / EOL – cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL         WESTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL

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You’ve probably noticed Tiger Swallowtails in your garden; they’re among the most common butterflies in the U.S. As you can see above, the Eastern and the Western are so similar in appearance as to be indistinguishable to most of us. So how to tell them apart? By where you live: The Eastern Tiger (Papilio glaucus) is found from the Great Plains, Colorado, and Texas to the east coast. The Western Tiger (Papilio rutulus) is seen west of that line.

Eastern Tiger: They fly from May to September in their northern range and February to November in the Deep South. They produce two to three broods, depending on their area, and hibernate as chrysalides. Foods: Adults nectar on such flowers as wild cherry, lilac, milkweed and Joe-pye Weed. Host plants: Trees, including wild cherry, birch, ash, cottonwood, and willow. Habitat: Deciduous forests, forest edges, parks, suburban and urban gardens. Wingspan: 3 to 5 1/2 inches (7.6 to 14 cm).
Western Tiger: Savor the sight when you see one — they fly only in June and July. They hibernate as chrysalides. Foods: Adults feed on nectar from such flowers as thistle, Abelia, zinnia, California Buckeye and Yerba Santa. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of cottonwood, aspen, willow, wild cherry and ash, and rest on silken mats within curled leaves for shelter. Habitat: Woodlands near water, parks, wooded suburban and urban areas. Wingspan: 2 3/4 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm). (photos: Eastern Tiger adult: Derek Ramsey / Wiki – GNUFDL. Eastern Tiger caterpillar: Tom Murray / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc 1.0. Western Tiger adult: T.W. Davies / EOL-CalPhotos – cc by-nc-sa 3.0. Western Tiger caterpillar: Kay Loughman / EOL-CalPhotos; cc by-nc 3.0)
ZEBRA SWALLOWTAIL
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There’s sure no mystery to how the Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)* came by its name! Their stripes make it easy to identify them. Inhabitants of the eastern half of the U.S., they fly from late-March to August in northern areas and into December in southern Florida. They produce up to four broods a year, depending on the climate. The caterpillars are black at first, but develop stripes as they grow. They overwinter as chrysalides.
 
Foods: Adults nectar on various flowers, including blueberry, blackberry, redbud, Common Milkweed, and verbena. Host plants: Pawpaw trees. Habitat: Wherever pawpaw trees grow in woodlands, prairies, savannas and suburban and urban yards. Wingspan: 2-3/8 to 3-1/2 inches (5.8 to 8.9 cm). (photos counterclockwise from top-left: Megan McCarty / Wiki – cc by 3.0; Patrick Coin / Flickr – cc by-nc-sa-2.0; Megan McCarty / Wiki – PD)

GREAT SPANGLED FRITILLARY

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The Great-spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) is the most common fritillary in the eastern U.S. They also are found in parts of the central Midwest and Northwest, as well as Canada from Alberta east to Nova Scotia. They have one brood per year, from mid-June to mid-September. Eggs are laid in late summer on or near violets. The newly hatched caterpillars eat their eggshell and then immediately go into hibernation. The following spring they begin feeding, but only at night, on young violet leaves.

Foods: Adults nectar from many flowers, including milkweed, thistle, ironweed, verbena, red clover, Joe-pye Weed and Purple Coneflower. Host plants: Various species of violets. Habitat: Open, moist places, including meadows, open woodlands, prairies, suitable suburban and urban yards. Wingspan: 2 1/2 to 4 inches (6.4 to 10 cm). (photos above: left to right: Bill Bouton / EOL – cc by-sa 2.0; Figgins2165 / Wiki – cc by 3.0; Nicky Davis / EOL – cc by 3.0

PAINTED LADY

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The Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui), or American Painted Lady, is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world, inhabiting nearly all terrestrial environments on all continents, except Australia and Antarctica. The Painted Lady looks similar to the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella) and the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).

In the Deep South, they’re active year-round. Elsewhere, they fly from May to October. They are one of the very few butterflies that migrate, depending on climate patterns. And when they do, it’s in large numbers — thousands-to-millions of them. Not only that, but these delicate beauties can fly up to 100 miles per day! Adults in mild winter areas apparently hibernate as pupae. In colder regions, they die with the first freeze.

Foods: Adults nectar on tree sap, decaying fruit and many flowers, including thistle, blazing star, ironweed, Joe-Pye Weed, milkweed and red clover. Host plants: They use more than 100, with favorites including mallows, legumes, and thistles. Their caterpillars make nests for themselves by weaving leaves together with silk. Wingspan: 2 to 2-7/8 (5.1 to 7.4 cm). (photos clockwise from top-left: Cesare Brizio / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; WW; Miroslav Fiala / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0)

RED ADMIRAL

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The Red Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) is a common butterfly that ranges across the U.S., Canada and as far south as Guatemala. They fly from March to October. Their summer generations are more strongly colored than winter populations. They typically have one brood in the north and two in the south. There’s some mystery to the winter habits of Red Admirals. They’re known to migrate, but whether individuals travel the entire distance or only part way isn’t clear. It’s also unknown what proportion, if any, hibernate in their local area.

Foods: Adults prefer to feed on sap and fermenting fruit. When these aren’t available, they nectar on various flowers, including butterfly bush, milkweed, red clover, aster, and Spicebush. Host plants: Include nettle, pellitory, and hops. Young caterpillars eat and live within the shelter of folded leaves, while older ones make a nest of leaves by tying them together with silk. Habitat: open woodlands and forest edges, often near water; moist fields, urban parks, and yards. Wingspan: 1-3/4 to 3 inches (4.4 to 7.6 cm). (photos clockwise from top-left: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson / Flickr – cc by-sa 3.0; Kenneth Dwain Harrelson / Flickr – cc by-sa 3.0; Anita Gould / Flickr – cc by-nc 2.0)

 
RED-SPOTTED PURPLE                            WHITE ADMIRAL
 
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The Red-spotted Purple and the White Admiral, so different in appearance, were once thought to be two different species. But, researchers have concluded that they’re the same butterfly, just with two different appearances, and they’re a subspecies, Limenitis arthemis astyanax, of the Red Admiral. The two forms are primarily found in the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada, with a few isolated populations in Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas. The Red-spotted is seen in the more southern parts of their range than the White Admiral. They have two broods from April to October and overwinter as chrysalides.

Foods: Adults nectar on flowers of spirea, privet, and viburnam, as well as on sap, rotting fruit, carrion, and dung. Host plants: Caterpillars feed on birch trees primarily, but also on hawthorn, apple, native cherry, cottonwood, and others. Habitat: Urban and suburban gardens, deciduous and mixed forests, valleys, and coastal plains. Wingspan: 2-1/4 to 4 inches (5.7 to 10 cm). (photos: Red-spotted Purple, top to bottom: Ilona L. / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc 1.0; John Flannery / Flickr – cc by-sa 2.0; Tom Murray / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc-1.0. White Admiral, top to bottom: Gilles Gonthier / Flickr – cc by 2.0; Beatrice LaPorte / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0)

ORANGE SULPHUR
 
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The Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) was originally a western species but moved eastward with the planting of alfalfa fields and clear-cutting of forests. They’re now one of the most widespread and common butterflies in North America. They fly from June to October in the north and have two to three broods. In the south, they fly from March to November (even into December in some areas) and have four or five broods. They overwinter as chrysalides.

Their coloration is highly variable. Females range from white or pale- to bright-yellow or orangish on the upper surface, while males are yellow- to bright-orange. Males lack the series of white spots that run along the outer edge of the female’s wings. The photo above-left is a female.

Foods: They nectar from all kinds of flowers, including milkweeds, asters, and dandelion. Host plants: Plants in the legume family, including peas, beans, lentils, and white clover. Habitat: any open area, clover and alfalfa fields, mowed fields, vacant lots, meadows, roadsides, and city gardens. Wingspan: 1-3/8 to 2-3/4 inches (3 to 7 cm). (photos clockwise from top-left: Ken Childs / EOL – cc by-nc-sa-3.0; Outdoors2magic / Wiki – cc by-sa-2.0; M.J. Hatfield / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc-1.0)

  
*Listed by some authorities as Eurytides marcellus.
**The plural of “chrysalis,” which is often mistakenly called a cocoon. Cocoons are not the same thing, but both enclose the body of pupating insects.
*Top image: Tiger Swallowtail. (USFWS / Flickr; cc by 2.0)
 

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