Need help identifying butterflies? These quick tips show how to recognize the differences between various groups of butterflies.
If you are interested in providing habitat that benefits butterflies, have a look at these host plants you can grow in your yard.
This excerpt from Bird Watcher's Digest Butterflies Backyard Guide by Erin Gettler is provided with permission from Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc. who also provided a review copy of this book. Images from Shutterstock.
Quick Tips for Identifying Butterflies
How to Use These Tips
It can be tricky to identify butterflies. The first step is to determine whether you are looking at a butterfly or a moth. The top tip is to look at the antennae. Moths have feathered or saw-edged feelers or antennae. On butterflies, they are more slender and smooth with bulbs or clubs on the tips. There may be exceptions to this but I am not aware of them.
So, you know you have a butterfly. Now what? There are 15 basic groups listed below, and, it’s helpful to get familiar with them. There are common traits for each group and, if you can recognize them, it becomes much easier to then drill down and determine the species. Like just about anything in life, it’s all about developing an eye for the nuances.
This excerpt is from Butterflies Backyard Guide which I used to learn the groups and look up profiles of butterfly species. I also pay attention to the plants they frequent and learn which plants are required to host their larvae. We tend to overlook this but some species are completely dependent on single plants (or just a few) to nurture new generations. These are the plants to add to your garden.
15 Butterfly Groups
1 Swallowtails have wide, pointed wings and trailing tails.
2 Oranges are small and orange or yellow.
3 Sulphurs are about 2 to 3 inches across and bright yellow, often with pink edging.
4 Whites are small and white, sometimes with black or gray veins.
How We Can Help Monarchs
Little Wood Satyr
Small, nondescript butterflies bounding past your ankles during your early summer hike are likely to belong to the satyr family, and little wood satyrs are one of the most common members of this group. Satyrs do not eat flower nectar as a primary food source. Instead, they seek out tree sap and, surprisingly, a sweet liquid called honeydew secreted by aphids.
5 Coppers and hairstreaks are tiny and are usually gray with black spots on the underside of their wings. Coppers have a bright, metallic sheen to their upper wings. Hairstreaks usually, but not always, have threadlike tails.
6 Blues also have gray underwings with black spots, but males’ wings are usually brilliant metallic blue on top.
7 Monarchs and other milkweed butterflies are large, with brown or orange wings.
This shows you how to collect and grow milkweed seeds.
8 Fritillaries are brown and orange with black or dark brown dots, dashes, squiggles, and marbling. Greater fritillaries have white or “silver” spots on their underwings.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Named for their black-and-yellow striped wings, eastern tiger swallowtails are among the larger butterflies in your garden, with a wingspan between 2.5 to 4.5 inches. To tell them apart from other yellow swallowtails, look for five wide black stripes, and a blue band and red spots on the underside of the hindwing.
9 Many admirals are mimics of species with toxic defenses, but the shapes of their wings usually differ from the butterflies they imitate.
10 Emperors have a triangular shape, with long, pointed forewings.
11 Ladies have a cobwebbed, camouflage pattern on their underwings and a distinctive close-winged profile with squared-off forewing tips.
12 Tortoiseshells and commas have characteristic jagged edges, squared-off or recurved forewing tips, and small, tail-like points on their hindwings. Their wings are typically bright orange on top, but camouflaged below.
North America’s only carnivorous butterfly, harvesters are more colorful than the hairstreaks the resemble, with washes of rusty orange, rose, and violet, and brick-colored spots ringed with brighter lavender.
13 Satyrs are brown and have eyespots.
14 Spread-wing skippers have fat bodies and look more like day-flying moths than skippers.
15 Grass skippers perch with their forewings held erect at a forty-five-degree angle, and their hindwings held horizontally, giving them a fighter-jet profile. They’re usually tiny and are often colored orange or brown. Once you recognize which group the butterfly belongs to, note finer details such as color and placement of field marks (eyespots, white bands, and iridescence) to help you identify what you’ve seen.
And that’s it! There’s lots of groups but, it really does help to identify them this way so you can then narrow it down to the right species. Butterflies are most active on sunny afternoons, so have a camera handy and see what you can find.
The understated, small, but dapper gray hairstreak, a 1.5-inch butterfly, is found bounding through open habitats nationwide in the United States. They prefer small flowers to accommodate their short tongues.
Bird Watcher’s Digest Butterflies Backyard Guide
Butterflies are likely the most popular—and most beautiful—insects in the entire insect class. With their large, brightly colored wings and beneficial pollinator roles in the ecosystem, it’s no wonder they have such a big fan base amongst their human observers. For anyone who’s ever wondered exactly which butterfly it is that they’re admiring, the Butterflies Backyard Guide has all the answers.
Bird Watcher’s Digest Butterflies Backyard Guide by Erin Gettler
Includes complete profiles on 60 butterflies including ID tips, habitat, life cycles, and how to attract them.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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