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There are an astonishing 20,000 different types of butterflies in the world, and more than 700 of these can be found in North America. By growing the right plants in your garden and creating a diverse habitat, you may attract several of these species. But if you want to get friendly with them, you’ll need to know which species to expect and how to identify them.
1. Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
While some people refer to the monarch as the milkweed butterfly, it might surprise you to learn that they aren’t the most effective pollinators of this plant, although they do need it to survive. That said, they are excellent pollinators of zinnia and Brazilian verbena.
These butterflies have bright orange wings with black lines that almost appear like veins. Those of the females tend to be wider. During their migration period, monarch butterflies can fly as far as 2800 miles down to Mexico where they will hibernate.
Monarchs will only lay eggs on milkweed, and the caterpillars feed off the plant exclusively, so if you want them in your yard, you must have milkweed.
2. Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
The cabbage white is one of the most commonly seen white butterflies in gardens across North America. But what is surprising is that this is a non-native species. Their habitat is not only in well-planted gardens but also in meadows and even urban areas, where you will find them all through spring and summer up until fall.
Cabbage white butterflies are easy to tell apart thanks to their white wings with a spattering of gray on the tips. Females have two gray spots on the wings, while males have a single spot.
The caterpillars, as the name suggests, enjoy cabbage and other plants like mustard. You’ll also attract them with things like cauliflower and broccoli plants.
3. Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
While the painted lady is one of the most common butterflies around the world, you might only see them every other year. That’s because they tend to come in droves one year while numbers decline the following year, and so on. What’s also fascinating about them is how tolerant they are of cooler weather and so you may see them well into fall.
Painted lady butterflies have a mottled appearance and colors that vary between brown and orange. One of their most identifying features is the four eyespots on the lower wings.
These butterflies feed on cudweed, hollyhock, red clover, and thistle, among other things.
4. Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
As you might guess from the name, one of the most obvious ways to identify the common buckeye is by its eyespots that run along the edges of the wings. The wings are brown with orange borders, and the eyespots have splashes of blue and off-white.
These butterflies are found in abundance across North America and usually prefer low vegetation and open areas. These relatively large butterflies whose wingspan can reach up to 2.4 inches/7 cm.
The common buckeye is attracted to a whole host of plants including the false foxglove, American bluehearts, asters, peppermint, and twinflower, among many others.
5. Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
What’s most interesting about the black swallowtail is that it is a mimic of the spicebush swallowtail, a poisonous butterfly. This is for predatory protection, but in any case, this is by far one of the most beautiful butterflies in North America.
When mating, these butterflies are pretty persistent with the male flying before the female until she succumbs to him.
They can normally be seen in gardens, meadows, on hills, and in urban areas. You can tell them apart thanks to their deep black coloration with rows of blue and yellow spots. If you want to see more of them, consider growing plants like dill and parsley, which they are attracted to.
6. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
One of the most fascinating things about the eastern tiger swallowtail is that it is perhaps one of the largest types of butterfly in North America. Their wings can grow up to 5.5 inches/14 cm!
Other ways to identify this butterfly are to look for small orange and blue spots at the tail (only on males) and for yellow markings with black stripes. That said, there are some females whose coloration is more brown/black to mimic the pipevine.
The eastern tiger swallowtail is a native butterfly that can often be found in woodlands. It loves sycamore and willow trees as well as basswood and sweet bay. For its nectar source, plant milkweed and wild cherry.
7. Eastern Tailed-Blue (Cupido comyntas)
The Eastern tailed-blue is one of the smaller butterfly species found in the northeastern parts of the United States. But they can be found as far down as Texas. These butterflies like open areas with lots of sun, so you’ll usually see them in places like meadows and gardens.
They do look quite similar to the Karner blue but with the addition of their small ‘tails’ at the base of the wings, they’re easy to spot. The males have a brighter blue hue while the females are often lighter in color. At the bottom of the wings, there is a couple of orange, chevron-shaped markings.
The Eastern tailed-blue butterfly takes nectar from more than 30 types of flowers. These include clover, wood sorrel, and low-bush blueberry!
8. Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
The viceroy butterfly is often mistaken for the monarch but there is an easy way to tell them apart. When trying to identify these butterflies, look for a black line that runs along the hind wings; this is not found on a monarch. Viceroys are also a lot smaller than monarchs but in many other ways, they look very similar.
The viceroy butterfly is found almost all across North America, including Canada and Mexico. They thrive near open areas with water and lots of shrubs. To bring them to your garden, you will need to grow things like milkweed and thistles for the adults. Caterpillars like willow and poplars.
9. Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)
Interestingly, the clouded sulphur is one of the most abundant butterflies during summer. The reason for this is that owing to their shorter life span, they tend to breed at a much higher rate so numbers rapidly increase.
You can tell the clouded sulphur apart from other butterflies thanks to its unique, sulphur yellow coloration. The females tend to have brighter colors while the males may be more muted and regardless of gender, there will be a dark spot on the forewing.
Sulphur butterflies migrate during winter but they can otherwise be found over almost all of Northern America. They prefer areas like fields, meadows, and lawns but also love to gather around muddy puddles. They take their food from peas, clovers, alfalfa, and asters.
10. Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)
The question mark butterfly likes a diverse habitat with areas of both open and tree-covered space. They require nettles and hackberries as host plants for their caterpillars, while the adults will feed on rotting fruit, sweet pepper bush, and aster.
These fascinating butterflies take their name from the marking that looks like a question mark on the underside of the hind wing. This is an easy way to identify them, but also look at coloration, which will be orange and black, turning darker in summer. Many people agree that they could be easily mistaken for a dead leaf!
Question mark butterflies are commonly found in Southern Canada and Eastern USA but have also been noted all the way down to Arizona and Mexico.
11. Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
The red admiral butterfly is found all over the world, including North America. While it is widespread across the continent, what’s interesting is that we are unaware as to whether this particular species breeds in the Florida Keys specifically.
Red admirals are a smaller species that typically doesn’t grow any bigger than 2.5 inches across. They have dark brown to black wings with bright orange bands running across them as well as a series of white spots and borders along the edges of the wings.
They can be found in moist woodlands, but if you want to attract them to your garden, be sure to have plenty of stinging nettles. While this isn’t the most sought-after garden plant by humans, red admirals go mad for it as a host plant. For the adults, plant milkweed, asters, and goldenrod as a source of nectar.
12. Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
The gulf fritillary is sometimes called the passion butterfly and is a medium-sized species that can be easily identified by its rusty orange coloration and elongated forewings. The wings also feature black round or long markings, and these butterflies can grow up to 3.7 inches/9.5 cm across.
It won’t surprise you to learn that the gulf fritillary gets its nickname from its love for the passionflower, which they use as a host plant and for feeding as adults. But also keep in mind that this species is an excellent pollinator of all types of asters.
The gulf fritillary is native to southern parts of the US and Mexico, although it was introduced into California in lowland areas. What’s amazing about them is that you won’t typically see them flying through the air as they normally fly much higher than our eye level. The only time they come down is when they see an attractive plant.
13. Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
A lot of the time, the pearl crescent goes unnoticed because of its dull, brown coloration. However, they are quite fascinating as their colors will change according to the season and location. They could be anything from mottled gray to brown and orange but always have white crescent-shaped markings at the edge of the wings.
The pearl crescent butterfly can be found across North America but not in Mexico and along some western parts of the United States. It enjoys road edges, pine woods, and pastures and is typically active between April and November when it can have quite a few broods.
These small to medium butterflies use a variety of asters as a host plant and the adults can be found feeding on things like black-eyed susans, milkweed, and dogbane.
14. Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
You will find the fiery skipper butterfly along the southern and eastern parts of the United States but they are not found in the Great Basin or the Rocky Mountains. These are small butterflies whose wingspan rarely exceeds 1.25 inches but they hold their wings in a triangular shape to absorb the rays of the sun.
Fiery skippers coloration varies between males and females with the former being bright orange while the latter is much duller to better camouflage. Males also have a selection of black spots and markings on the upper side of the wings.
These feisty little butterflies can be seen on meadows and areas of low vegetation. They enjoy day jessamine, big caltrop, and chiggery grapes as adults while the eggs are normally laid on host plants such as hairy crabgrass and sugarcane.
15. Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
Mourning cloak butterflies are incredibly common in all parts of North America. They love parks and gardens, as well as open woodland, so they’re very easy to come across.
Telling them apart from other species is equally easy since they have a very unique appearance that cannot be confused with anything else. They have maroon to dark brown wings with off white borders as well as blue spots.
The mourning cloak butterfly appears much earlier in the year than other species due to the fact that it will overwinter. If the weather is mild enough, they may start to emerge as early as January!
Caterpillars prefer willow as a host plant, while the adults don’t usually visit flowers. Instead, they much prefer rotting organic matter and tree sap.
16. Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)
The spring azure is another of the earliest butterflies to emerge each year. What sets them apart from the rest is their incredibly small size; they don’t typically grow any more than an inch. You will find them all over North America but not in coastal areas of Florida and Texas.
These butterflies like to frequent the edges of woodlands but are also commonly found in gardens with plenty of flowers. They are one of two blue species to be seen in gardens, with the other being the tailed blue, so they’re easy to tell apart. The spring azure may be various shades of violet-blue with black spots and sometimes a grayish border.
If you are looking to attract the spring azure to your garden, then be sure to grow nectar-rich plants like blueberries and dogwood.
Butterfly Family Classifications
Butterflies are divided into families according to their traits and characteristics. Knowing these families can be useful when it comes to identifying them. Butterflies fall into one of six families.
Butterflies in the papilionidae family are mainly swallowtails with the sub-family, parnassians. These butterflies have wings that appear to have tails on the ends. However, the parnassians do not have this characteristic. Most papilionidae butterflies are very colorful and large in size.
Examples of butterflies that belong to the papilionidae family include:
The riodinidae family of butterflies is made up of those that have metallic coloration across the wings. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as metalmark butterflies. Most commonly, this family is native to South America although there are some species across Asia.
Examples of butterflies that belong to the riodinidae family include:
The lycaenidae family of butterflies contains those with narrower bodies and that are generally smaller in size. They are sometimes called gossamer wings and usually have bright coloration. In some species, there are tails on the ends of the wings and the antennae usually have white rings around them.
Examples of butterflies that belong to the lycaenidae family include:
The most obvious identifying feature of the nymphalidae family of butterflies are the legs. They are called brush-footed butterflies owing to the small hairs on the legs. These butterflies might look as though they only have four legs but this is likely due to how they walk only with the hind and middle legs. This is one of the most common butterfly families.
Examples of butterflies that belong to the nymphalidae family include:
You may hear the hesperiidae family being called skippers. These are small butterflies whose most obvious identifying feature is the hooked end of the antenna whereas many other butterflies would have small knobs here. Another characteristic is their erratic flight pattern which causes them to look as though they are skipping between flowers.
Examples of butterflies that belong to the hesperiidae family include:
The pieridae butterfly family is native to Africa and is made up of around 1100 species, with around 60 species located in North America. These butterflies are usually white or yellow in color and have markings that could be orange or black. In terms of size, they can be small to medium and have three sets of walking legs.
Examples of butterflies that belong to the pieridae family include:
How to Identify Butterflies
Since there are so many types of butterfly and many appear very similar, it can be difficult for a beginner to easily identify them. But there are some ways to make it easier.
Looking at the color and markings of a butterfly is one of the easiest ways to tell what it is. For example, white and sulphurs belong in the pieridae family, while those with metallic coloration and markings come from the riodinidae family.
As we have discussed when looking at individual types of butterflies, some have very distinct markings, such as the viceroy, whose single black line running across the wing can differentiate it from the monarch butterfly.
Different butterflies fly in different ways, and this is a great way to narrow down what species they may be. For example, hairstreaks have a very rapid and erratic flight pattern, while the different types of blue butterflies move much more slowly and gracefully.
If you find a butterfly resting on a plant with the wings relaxed then this allows you to get a good look at their shape. This tells you a lot about the species. For example, you may be able to identify the elongated wings of the gulf fritillary butterfly. You might also be able to tell that something is a swallowtail owing to the tail-like protrusions at the end of the wings.
While most butterflies can be found across North America, there are plenty of species that are found in specific areas, or not, as the case may be. By narrowing down the butterflies that can be found in your current location, you will have a much better chance of identifying them.
It’s also worth considering the habitat in which you have spotted a butterfly. Some species prefer open spaces with a lot of sun, while others like the cover of woodlands.
Using the information above, you can narrow down the potential species of a butterfly by working out which family it belongs to.
Life Cycle of a Butterfly
As many of you probably already know, butterflies begin life as a caterpillar. But they undergo a pretty impressive transformation between childhood and adulthood, this life cycle is called metamorphosis.
- The first stage of life for a butterfly is the egg. Females lay a large clutch of eggs on a host plant which will then become food for the young once they hatch.
- Once the eggs hatch, caterpillars are born and they spend their lives eating as much as they can. Over the course of this stage, the caterpillar may shed its skin up to five times as it grows!
- The following stage is the pupa in which the caterpillar becomes a chrysalis that is suspended from a branch but may also be buried underground or hidden among foliage. Inside the chrysalis, caterpillars continue growing and special cells develop legs, wings, and other features.
- During the adult stage of the butterfly’s life cycle is when we would recognize it as a butterfly. One of its sole purposes is to breed and they gain energy by feeding on nectar from flowers, although some adults don’t eat at all! This stage of life typically only lasts a few weeks but there are some species that hibernate and live for several months.
How Long Do Butterflies Live for?
The lifespan of a butterfly largely depends on the species. There are some that only live for a few weeks, while others that hibernate can live for a couple of months.
That said, most butterfly species have a lifespan of around four weeks, but some live much less than this, owing to factors like disease and predators as well as human factors like cars.
The longest living butterflies, like the mourning cloak, can live up to nine months, while smaller species can live as little as a week.
Plants to Grow to Attract Butterflies
Butterflies are welcome visitors to most gardens thanks to how well they pollinate plants. However, if you want to attract them to your backyard, you need to choose the right plants. While there are, in theory, hundreds of plants to choose from, we have created a list of a few of the most effective.
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Keep in mind that while very effective at attracting butterflies, lantana is only suitable for zones outside of 8-10, otherwise, it can become invasive. You will need a spot with full sun and plenty of space as they can grow up to six feet tall and three feet wide.
These colorful plants will bring in lots of adult butterflies, including skippers and swallowtails. What’s more, it’ll also attract hummingbirds owing to what a good source of nectar it is.
Purpletop Vervain (Verbena bonariensis)
With evergreen foliage and delicate purple flowers, this perennial is ideal for attracting butterflies and other pollinators. It can grow up to six feet in height and is ideal in a sunny spot in zones 7 – 10. However, it is important to remember that during a mild winter, it may reseed very aggressively.
Phlox (Phlox spp.)
A recent study showed that phlox was one of the most effective plants in attracting a wide range of butterfly species. What’s great is that it is so low maintenance and comes in a beautiful array of colors, including blues, pinks, and reds. You will need to find a sunny spot, but there are different varieties, including the tall phlox and a creeper which are excellent for ground cover.
Sedum (Sedum spp.)
Sedum is brilliant for butterflies as it will act as both a host and nectar plant. Moreover, it attracts a very wide range of butterflies, including skippers, hairstreaks, and red admirals. If you want a plant that blooms for most of the year, then it’s a great choice as it will begin blooming in September and carry on through to August! In fall, the color changes from a pink hue to bronze.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
Choose your variety of buddleia carefully as some can be invasive, especially during a mild winter. However, this is one of the best ways to attract butterflies to your garden. Look for sterile varieties like Miss Molly and Asian Moon to avoid problems with them becoming invasive. That said, there are more than 100 varieties to choose from; some can grow up to ten feet!
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
The purple coneflower comes in a lot of colors, but most native plants are pink. If you are looking to attract butterflies, it is best to go with native species as they have been proven time and again to be the most effective. You’ll get a long blooming period between June and October, and these plants only grow to around four feet, so aren’t overly large.
Liatris (Liatris spp.)
In late summer, the liatris plant blooms beautiful purple flowers that are incredibly attractive to butterflies. In particular, this plant will attract monarchs but you will notice a variety of different species. The plants are easy to grow from bulbs in both beds and containers and are relatively low maintenance so are great for the busy gardener.
Pentas (Pentas spp.)
While pentas do come in a range of colors, many people claim that the red variety attracts the most butterflies. As a nectar plant, you will notice other types of pollinators like hummingbirds so it’s a great multipurpose flower. You can plant them in either full or partial sun and they won’t get too big with even the largest plants rarely exceeding three feet.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweed is especially important for monarch butterflies as they rely on this as a food source. In the wild, there is a frightening lack of milkweed, so anyone creating a butterfly garden would do well to include it. There are lots of milkweed varieties, so you will need to check which will thrive best in your local area, and they’re not too difficult to take care of. Do keep in mind that milkweed is toxic to humans and pets, so keep your animals and children away from them.
When is the Peak Season for Butterflies?
Many people think that butterflies only emerge in the summer, but this is not the case. There is butterfly activity during several parts of the year.
Summer is, of course, the peak time for butterflies, and you will see many species such as tailed blues, monarchs, and pearl crescents. However, during summer, you may notice painted ladies, spring whites, spring azures, and orange tips, among others.
During the later part of the year, in fall, there are still plenty of butterflies flitting around. In fact, the monarch butterfly is often seen during September so make sure you’ve got plenty of milkweed ready for them. Other autumnal butterfly species include the mourning cloak and the question mark butterfly.
Interesting Facts about Butterflies
Butterflies are not only one of nature’s most beautiful creatures, but they are also pretty fascinating. When you’re out spotting butterflies, it can be interesting to learn more about them and we’ll get you started with these astonishing facts!
1. Butterflies Don’t Eat, They Actually Drink
Butterflies are unable to eat solid foods once they reach adulthood. Instead, they will usually feed on nectar which they source from a variety of flowering plants like those we have discussed in this guide. If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, you might also put out sugar water. They drink this in the same way as nectar using a tongue that acts like a straw!
Amazingly, male butterflies have an additional nutritional need; salt and minerals. They get this by drinking water from mud puddles which is why you often see colonies of butterflies hovering around these areas.
2. Butterflies Use Their Antennae to Smell
Many people know that butterflies use their antennae to feel, and while this is true, these appendages serve a much greater purpose.
Along the antennae are fine structures known as chemoreceptors which are open nerve cells with the ability to react to certain chemicals. When exposed, these chemicals ‘lock’ into the nerve cells which then send a signal to the brain allowing the butterfly to ‘smell’ it. This helps them to locate food such as sugar water.
What’s even more interesting is that adult butterflies, like the monarch, have these receptors all over their bodies, not just on the antennae.
3. Butterflies Suck Nectar with their Tube-Like Tongue
As we have discovered, butterflies do not eat, but they drink. They do this using a tongue-like structure known as a proboscis which they unravel and use just like a straw!
Not only that, but owing to the length of the proboscis, this allows the butterflies to reach deep into a flower and access the nectar.
4. Butterflies are Cold-Blooded and Can’t Fly When it’s Cold
Butterflies are cold-blooded animals which means that they are unable to regulate their own body temperature. If their temperature is lower than 85ºF then they cannot fly. This is why you will usually only see butterflies during the warmest parts of the day.
When the air temperature is cooler, butterflies need to bask in the sun, using their wings almost like solar panels. They may also have to beat their wings in order to warm them up ready for flight. What’s most interesting, however, is that if the air temperature gets below around 55 degrees, the butterfly will not be able to move at all and becomes vulnerable to predators.
5. Monarch Butterflies Migrate Thousands of Miles
Not all butterflies migrate, but some will head for warmer climates during the winter months. One of the species most famed for this is the monarch butterfly which can travel up to 2800 miles during migration.
Normally, these butterflies will begin their migration sometime before the end of October and will go as far south as Mexico. Although other common locations include Florida and Cuba.
6. Butterflies Don’t Sleep but Rest
All creatures need to give their energy reserves a boost, but butterflies don’t do this by sleeping. Instead, they will rest at times when it gets cooler or overcast. This can be during either the day or the night.
Normally, they will hide among foliage and often hang from leaves with their eyes open. However, during the night, butterflies may retreat into cracks and crevices to rest. This way of resting is known as a quiescent state which is otherwise known as a state of dormancy.
7. Butterflies Taste with Their Feet
In a very similar way that butterflies smell using chemoreceptors on their antennae, they use the same system to taste with their feet. There is a large presence of these receptors on the feet and are similar to the receptors that we humans have in our noses and mouths. However, what’s really fascinating is that, in butterflies, these receptors are known to be about 200 times stronger!
8. Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is the Biggest Butterfly
Butterflies come in all shapes and sizes, but the biggest recorded butterfly is the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), that has a wingspan of up to 11 inches! You won’t find these in North America, though, since they are native to the forests of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, this is considered an endangered species.
On the other hand, there are several species of incredibly small butterflies. One of these is the western blue pygmy which has a maximum wingspan of just 0.8 inches/2 cm. These butterflies are found in the Middle East but have also been spotted in Hawaii.
9. They Attach Their Eggs to Leaves Using a Type of Glue
Female butterflies lay their eggs on a host plant so that the caterpillars have food when they hatch. So that the eggs do not detach from the leaves, the butterfly uses an adhesive-like substance to ‘glue’ them in place. This glue holds the eggs so well that they will be damaged if they are removed prior to hatching. Amazingly, a single female can lay up to 300 eggs at once!
10. Butterflies Live anywhere from a Few Weeks up to a Year
Some butterflies have a very short lifespan, but this depends greatly on the species as well as other factors within the environment and what time of year they became an adult.
Size is another factor that determines how long a butterfly will live. Some of the smaller species may only live for around a week, but the average lifespan of a butterfly is about one month.
There are some butterfly species that will hibernate over winter meaning that they may live for several months. The longest living butterflies are mourning cloaks, monarchs, and heliconians which can live up to nine months.
11. Butterfly Wings Are Covered With Thousands of Tiny Scales
While a butterfly wing might look like a solid, opaque structure, there’s far more to it than meets the eye. The wings are a membrane which are covered in very tiny dust-like scales. Depending on the species, the individual scales could be as small as 1/20 of a millimeter and may vary in shape.
It is these scales that make the wings look opaque when in reality, they are transparent. The colors we see on the butterfly are reflected by light bouncing off the scales.
When you touch a butterfly, you may notice a light dust on your fingers, this is where you have rubbed off the scales and why you should not handle these delicate creatures. If too many scales are removed, this can affect the butterfly’s ability to absorb heat which could eventually kill it.