Need help identifying butterflies? These quick tips show how to recognize the differences between various groups of butterflies. Once you know who they are, you can provide the plants they need to survive.
If you are interested in providing habitat that benefits butterflies, have a look at these host plants you can grow in your yard.
Quick Tips for Identifying Butterflies
This selection 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.
Many butterflies need specific plants to survive, others are generalists. But either way, they need particular plants to survive.
Once you know the butterfly species that live in your area, you can learn which plants to grow to provide essential food and habitat including host plants for the caterpillar larvae.
Identifying butterflies can be tricky. There are numerous look-alikes, that are commonly mistaken for one-another. And, it is not always easy to tell if we’re looking at a moth or a butterfly.
Let’s get that sorted out first.
How can you tell the difference between moths and butterflies?
While some species are easy to distinguish, there are lots of exceptions to these rules!
- Besides the fact that butterflies are mainly diurnal (active during the day) and moths are often noctural (active at night), 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, but along with active time of day, it’s a good clue.
This explains why moths are also important for our ecosystems and why they are overlooked.
So, you know you have a butterfly.
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 selection is from Butterflies Backyard Guide which I used to learn the groups and look up profiles of butterfly species.
Sometimes the plants they frequent also help with identification. We know, for instance, that monarch larvae can only feed on milkweed plants, so that’s always a big clue.
Want Pollinators in Your Garden?
- Choose plants, trees, and shrubs used by local wildlife for food and habitat during all stages of life. Options will be different in each growing region.
- Avoid products like pesticides that are toxic to pollinators and other animals that rely on them.
- Keep it natural: sustainable gardens are not tidy. Dead and decaying things nourish living things.
You can read more ecological gardening tips here.
Butterfly Groups: How Many Do You Recognize?
There are more butterfly groups and butterflies than I have listed here but this provides a good overview of some you may be familiar with depending on your location.
Some of the groups not listed are buckeyes, snouts (great name!), and crescents.
Swallowtails have wide, pointed wings and trailing tails.
- Black swallowtail
- Eastern tiger swallowtail
- Giant swallowtail
- Pipevine swallowtail
- Spicebush swallowtail
- Western tiger swallowtail
- Zebra swallowtail
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.
2Oranges and Sulphurs
Oranges are small and orange or yellow.
Sulphurs are about 2 to 3 inches across and bright yellow, often with pink edging.
- Clouded sulphur
- Sleepy orange
- Southern dogface
Whites are small and white, sometimes with black or gray veins.
- Cabbage white
- Checkered white
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.
5Coppers and Hairstreaks
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.
- American copper
- Purplish copper
- Banded hairstreak
- Brown elfin
- Coral hairstreak
- Easter pine elfin
- Gray hairstreak
- Western pine elfin
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.
Blues also have gray underwings with black spots, but males’ wings are usually brilliant metallic blue on top.
- Easter tailed-blue
- Spring azure
- Western tailed-blue
7Monarchs and Other Milkweed Butterflies
Monarchs and other milkweed butterflies are large, with brown or orange wings. This shows you how to collect and grow milkweed seeds.
- Dark blue tiger
- Striped blue crow
- Common tiger
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.
- Aphrodite fritillary
- Great spangled fritillary
- Meadow fritillary
- Variegated fritillary
Many admirals are mimics of species with toxic defenses, but the shapes of their wings usually differ from the butterflies they imitate.
- Red-spotted admiral
- White admiral
Emperors have a triangular shape, with long, pointed forewings.
- Hackberry emperor
- Tawny emperor
Ladies have a cobwebbed, camouflage pattern on their underwings and a distinctive close-winged profile with squared-off forewing tips.
- American lady
- Painted lady
- Red admiral
12Tortoiseshells and Commas
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.
- Easter comma
- Milbert’s tortoiseshell
- Mourning cloak
- Question mark
Satyrs are brown and have eyespots.
- Common ringlet
- Common wood-nymph
- Little wood satyr
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.
Spread-wing skippers have fat bodies and look more like day-flying moths than skippers.
- Common checkered-skipper
- Juvenal’s duskywings
- Horace’s duskywings
- Silver-spotted skipper
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.
- Delaware skipper
- Dun skipper
- Hobomok skipper
- Least skipper
- Peck’s skipper
- Tawny-edged skipper
- Zabulon skipper
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.
Related: Should I use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for problem caterpillars?
Get the Book
Bird Watcher’s Digest Butterflies Backyard Guide
by Erin Gettler
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.
Includes complete profiles on 60 butterflies including ID tips, habitat, life cycles, and how to attract them.
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