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Butterfly Basics

Lepidoptera

Butterfly or Moth? Sign at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona

Butterflies and moths belong to a group of insects called Lepidoptera. Like all insects, butterflies and moths have a head, thorax, abdomen, two antennae, and six legs.

There are many more species of moths than butterflies. Butterflies and skippers make up about 10% of the Lepidoptera order, while moths make up 90%.

Moths and butterflies have four wings that are almost always covered by colored scales, and a coiled proboscis for drinking liquids such as flower nectar.

Butterfly or Moth?

Butterflies are active during the day, while moths tend to be noctural.

Butterflies tend to fold their wings vertically up over their backs. Moths tend to hold their wings in a tent-like fashion that hides the abdomen. Butterflies are typically larger and have more colorful patterns on their wings. Moths are typically smaller with drab-colored wings.

Some moths have wingless adults and some primitive moths lack a proboscis. Moths have a frenulum, which is a wing coupling device that ensures the wings travel together during flight. Butterflies do not have this.

Moths build a cocoon wrapped in a silk covering. A butterfly makes a chrysalis, which is hard and smooth with no silk covering.

The antennae of butterflies have a swelling at their end; moths have no such "club" and instead are more feathered. Moth antennae tend to be leaf or feather shaped (compare the two images below).

Butterfly (l) and moth (r) side-by-side comparison
Butterfly and moth side-by-side comparison

 

Common Butterfly Species

It is estimated that there are about 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. In North America, there are 725 species (north of Mexico), with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States. Included on this website are some of the more common butterflies found in residential areas, nearby parks and gardens, and while hiking in the open spaces.

Acmon Blue
American Lady
American Snout
Anise Swallowtail
Arctic Blue
Arizona Checkerspot
Arizona Hairstreak
Arizona Sister
Black Swallowtail
Blue Metalmark
Bordered Patch
Cabbage White
California Sister
Checkered White
Clouded Sulphur
Cloudless Sulphur
Common Buckeye
Common Mestra
Common Wood-nymph
Crimson Patch
Desert Marble
Diana Fritillary
Eastern Comma
Eastern Pine Elfin
Eastern Tailed-blue
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Empress Leilia
Falcate Orangetip
Fiery Skipper
Fulvia Checkerspot
Funereal Duskywing
Giant Swallowtail
Gillett's Checkerspot
Goatweed Leafwing
Gray Hairstreak
Great Purple Hairstreak
Great Southern White Butterfly
Great Spangled Fritillary
Greenish Blue
Guava Skipper
Gulf Fritillary
Hackberry Emperor
Hoary Comma
Horace's Duskywing
Indra Swallowtail
Julia Heliconian
Juniper Hairstreak
Laviana-white Skipper
Long-Tailed Skipper
Malachite
Marine Blue
Melissa Blue
Mexican Bluewing

Milbert's Tortoiseshell
Monarch
Mormon Fritillary
Mourning Cloak
Nokomis Fritillary
Northern Checkerspot
Orange Sulphur
Painted Lady
Palamedes Swallowtail
Pale Swallowtail
Pearl Crescent
Phaon Crescent
Pipevine Swallowtail
Polydamas Swallowtail
Queen
Question Mark
Red Admiral
Red-banded Hairstreak
Red-bordered Metalmark
Red-bordered Pixie
Red Satyr
Red Spotted Purple
Rocky Mountain Parnassian
Ruddy Daggerwing
Sagebrush Checkerspot
Silver Emperor
Silver Spotted Skipper
Silvery Checkerspot
Sleepy Orange
Southern Dogface
Soldier Butterfly
Spicebush Swallowtail
Tawny Emperor
Texan Crescent
Texas Powdered Skipper
Tiger Swallowtail
Tiny Checkerspot
Tropical Buckeye
Two-barred Flasher
Two-Tailed Swallowtail
Variable Checkerspot
Variegated Fritillary
Viceroy
Weidemeyer's Admiral
West Coast Lady
Western Tiger Swallowtail
White Peacock
White-striped Longtail
Zebra Hairstreak
Zebra Heliconian
Zebra Swallowtail
Zela Metalmark
Zerene Fritillary

 

Common Moths

Polyphemus Moth
Promethea Moth
Salt Marsh Moth
Snowberry Clearwing Moth
Spiny Oakworm Moth
Tersa Sphinx Moth
White-lined Sphinx Moth

 

 

Butterfly Life Cycle

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The life cycle consists of four stages:

  • Egg - A butterfly starts life as a very small, round, oval or cylindrical egg laid on the leaf of a "host plant"
  • Larva (caterpillar) - once the egg hatches, the larva eats the host plant on which it was placed. As the larva grows, they "molt" several times, becoming larger through each step, or "instar". 
  • Pupa (chrysalis) - as the larva reaches its full size, it transforms itself into sack in which it will make the final transformation into an adult.
  • Adult butterfly

After mating, the female butterfly lays small round or oval eggs on a “host” plant as shown below. Butterflies lay their eggs on plants that will be eaten by the caterpillar when it hatches from its egg. For example, the Monarch butterfly lays her eggs on Milkweed, while the Black Swallowtail will usually lay eggs on dill or fennel.

Monarch Butterfly egg carefully laid in the heart of a Milkweed plant


The eggs hatch into caterpillars within a few days, or within months or even years, depending on the species and weather conditons.

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar ... 7 days from egg laying ... size compared to a straight pin (below).

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar ... 7 days from egg laying ... size compared to a straight pin

 

Monarch Butterfly caterpillars ... nearing maturity

 

 

As the caterpillar reaches maturity, it transforms itself, or "pupates", into a "pupa", or chrysalis like the Monarch chrysalis shown below.

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar in its chrysalis ... carefully blending with nature!

 

As the Monarch chrysalis ages, it becomes dark and clear, with the butterfly evident inside, ready to emerge.

Monarch chrysalis ... dark and clear, with the butterfly ready to emerge

 

After several days or weeks, the adult butterfly emerges, completing the amazing life cycle!

In the photo below, we see a beautiful new Monarch Butterfly ... minutes after emerging from 10 days in its chrysalis!

A beautiful new Monarch Butterfly ... minutes after emerging from 10 days in its chrysalis

An adult Monarch butterfly
Monarch Butterfly at the Charlotte Rhoades butterfly Garden in Southwest Harbor, Maine


Life Span

Different butterfly species have different life spans. An average butterfly species has an adult life of 2-4 weeks, or less.

Some live much longer, like the Mourning Cloak, which may live almost a year. Monarchs and Swallowtails typically live no longer than a month. Others overwinter in the adult stage.

The Butterfly Diet

Most adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers through their tongues. A smaller number of butterflies never visit flowers, but gaining sustenance from tree sap, rotting animal matter, and other organic material.

Butterfly caterpillars almost all eat plant matter.

Scientific Family Classification

  • Papilionidae - Swallowtail butterflies, most species having prominent tails.
  • Hesperiidae - Skippers - relatively small, fast-flying species.
  • Lycaenidae - Blues, Hairstreaks and Coppers. Colors and patterns of sexes often differ.
  • Nymphalidae -  Brush-footed butterflies, contains many subfamilies.
  • Pieridae - Yellows and Whites, with those predominant colors.
  • Riodinidae - Metalmarks, sometimes placed in the Family Lycaenidae.

Studying the Butterfly: Dorsal and Ventral Views

When studying about butterflies, and reading books about them, you will often see references to "dorsal view" (wings open) and "ventral" view (wings closed). See example photos below.

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (dorsal view)
Male Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly on Butterfly Bush

 

Black Swallowtail butterfly (ventral view)
Black Swallowtail butterfly (ventral view) gathering nectar from a Milkweed flower

 

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