Most butterflies are beautiful, but some stand out above the others. Here are some of the biggest and boldest. Easy to spot and identify, they practically scream “Look at me,” as they elegantly move from flower to flower in our gardens.
Nearly everyone’s favorite butterfly is the lovely 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, stopping 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 will feed on the leaves.
Monarchs are becoming severely threatened by widespread destruction of milkweed plants. Adults not only lay eggs on them, but also sip nectar from the flowers. Other nectar plants for Monarchs include Butterfly Weed, Bee Balm, verbena and phlox.
Habitat: urban and suburban gardens, croplands, prairies. Wingspan: 3 1/2 to 4 inches. Pictorial of Monarch life cycle (photos clockwise from top-left: Derek Ramsey / Wiki – GFDL: Lisa Brown / Flickr – cc by-nc 2.0; WW)
The Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) looks 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 — he won’t again. That’s because the caterpillars store distasteful cardiac glycosides in their body from some of the milkweed plants they feed on. The compounds are in their bodies as adults, too. They can be harmful to birds.
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. Adults nectar on many flowers, including milkweeds, dogbanes, fogfruit and Shepherd’s Needle.
Habitat: wherever milkweeds grow — urban and suburban gardens, meadows, fields, marshes, deserts, forest edges. Wingspan: 2 5/8 to 3 7/8 inches. (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)
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.
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 are willows, poplars and cottonwoods. Caterpillars feed at night. They hang balls of leaf bits, dung, silk off the leaf they’re eating, perhaps to distract predators. They produce two to three generations a year and overwinter as chrysalides wrapped within a rolled leaf tip for shelter.
Habitat: Moist open and shrubby areas, including urban and suburban yards. Wingspan: 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 inches. (photos clockwise from top-left: Tom Murray / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc 2.0; Tom Murray / BugGuide; WW)
You won’t overlook this butterfly! With a wing span from 4 to 6 1/4 inches, the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is the largest butterfly in the U.S. They’re seen across most of the country. In the north they have two broods from May to September and are active year-round in southern Florida and the Deep South.
Adults take nectar from a variety of plants and shrubs, including lantana, azalea, Dame’s Rocket, goldenrod and Swamp Milkweed. As hosts for their caterpillars, they use 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. They’re a delight on larger plants, however, because you’ll later see the spectacular adults. 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, 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
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: The Eastern flies from May to September in their northern range and February to November in the Deep South. Adults nectar on such flowers as wild cherry, lilac, milkweed and Joe-pye Weed. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of trees, including wild cherry, birch, ash, cottonwood and willow. They produce two to three broods, depending on their area, and overwinter as chrysalides. Habitat: deciduous forests, forest edges, parks, suburban and urban gardens. Wingspan: 3 to 5 1/2 inches.
Western Tiger: Savor the sight when you see one — they fly only in June and July. Adults feed on nectar from such flowers as thistle, Abelia, zinnia, California Buckeye and Yerba Santa. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of cottonwood, aspen, willow, wild cherry and ash, and rest on silken mats within curled leaves for shelter. They hibernate as chrysalides.
Habitat: woodlands near water, parks, wooded suburban and urban areas. Wingspan: 2 3/4 to 4 inches. (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)
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.
Adults nectar on various flowers, including blueberry, blackberry, redbud, Common Milkweed and verbena. They use pawpaw trees as hosts for their caterpillars.
Habitat: wherever pawpaw trees grow in woodlands, prairies, savannas and suburban and urban yards. Wingspan: 2 3/8 to 3 1/2 inches. (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
The Great-spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) ranges across most of the U.S. and is the most common fritillary in the eastern U.S. Adults nectar from many flowers, including milkweeds, thistles, ironweed, verbena, red clover, Joe-pye Weed and Purple Coneflower. Caterpillar hosts include various violet species (Viola). 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 immediately go into hibernation. The following spring they begin feeding, only at night, on young violet leaves.
Habitat: open, moist places, including meadows, open woodlands, prairies, suitable suburban and urban yards. Wingspan: 2 1/2 to 4 inches. (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
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 sometimes migrate, depending on climate patterns, and do it 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 areas, they die with the first freeze.
Adults nectar on tree sap, decaying fruit and many flowers, including thistles, blazing star, ironweed, Joe-Pye Weed, milkweeds and red clover. They use more than 100 host plants, with favorites including mallows, legumes and thistles. Their caterpillars make nests for themselves by weaving leaves together with silk. Wingspan: 2 – 2 7/8. (photos clockwise from top-left: Cesare Brizio / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; WW; Miroslav Fiala / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0)
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. 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.
Adults prefer to feed on sap and fermenting fruit. When these aren’t available, they nectar on various flowers, including butterfly bush, milkweeds, red clover, aster and Spicebush. They typically have one brood in the north and two in the south. 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. Their host plants include nettles, pellitory and hops.
Habitat: open woodlands and forest edges, often near water; moist fields, urban parks and yards. Wingspan: 1 3/4 to 3 inches. (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
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 one and 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.
Adults nectar on flowers of spirea, privet and viburnam, as well as on sap, rotting fruit, carrion and dung. Their caterpillars feed on birch trees primarily, but also on hawthorn, apple, native cherry, cottonwoods and others. They have two broods from April to October and overwinter as chrysalides.
Habitat: urban and suburban gardens, deciduous and mixed forests, valleys, coastal plains. Wingspan: 2 1/4 – 4 inches. (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)
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.
They nectar from all kinds of flowers, including milkweeds, asters and dandelion, and use plants in the legume family, including peas, beans, lentils and white clover, as hosts for their caterpillars. Habitat: any open area, clover and alfalfa fields, mowed fields, vacant lots, meadows, roadsides, suitable city gardens. Wingspan: 1 3/8 – 2 3/4 inches. (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: cgvector; cc by-nc 2.0