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Black Swallowtails: How to Identify Them

Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Female Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes). Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Black Swallowtail butterflies visit my garden often. Just about everyday I see this big butterfly fluttering about two feet above the ground, as it searches among the flower blossoms for nectar or a hostplant. They like zinnias which I try to have every summer in my garden. The wide flat platform of the blossom is a good landing pad for butterflies.

There are over 483 kinds of Swallowtails butterflies in the world with most living in the tropics. The Swallowtail family includes  the birdwings, which are among the largest butterflies in the world.

Swallowtails flap their wings in slow beats, of just a few wingbeats per second. If they aren’t flying over an obstacle, like a fence, they stay just a few feet above the ground. Those large wings enable them to fly rather fast, at least for a butterfly.

The Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) is a widespread and common sight. It has eastern and western populations. It is also called the American Swallowtail.

 

How to Identify the Black Swallowtail

I often confuse this butterfly with Spicebush Swallowtails and the dark form of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. I look for the line of white dots above the blue scales on the hind wings. Only the female Black Swallowtail has those white dots. Neither the Spicebush or the dark form of the Eastern Tiger have the white spots. The Spicebush and Dark Eastern Tiger only have white dots along the edges of their wings. The Black Swallowtail has a double row of white dots.

The female Black Swallowtail looks a bit like a Pipevine Swallowtail, especially the underside of its wings. The Pipevine happens to taste bad. These the Pipevine, the dark form Eastern Tiger, the Spicebush and the Black Swallowtail look very much like.

The eastern population is mostly black with yellow or white hind wing spots. The western population in California is mostly yellow. All of this kind of butterfly have orange spots on the underside of the hind wings.

Across the bottom half of their wings, the butterflies have light-colored spots. The male Black Swallowtail has two rows of yellow spots along the outer hind wing. The female has two rows of white spots along the outer hind wing. Her spots are much smaller. But, the female has a large spots of delicately shaded blue.

 

Black Swallowtail osterium
Black Swallowtail Butterfly flashes its osmeterium. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Defenses

An osmeterium is a fleshy, orange forked scent gland that all swallowtail butterflies larva have. I haven’t gotten close enough to smell this gland but those who have say it emits a foul-smelling odor. I have poked a Black Swallowtail larva and it responded by waving this, snake-tongued gland at me. Apparently it repels ants, and other predators.

See Black Swallowtail Butterfly and It’s Fascinating Behavior

The Caterpillar (The Butterfly Life Cycle)

 

 

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyyxenes) butterfly chrysalis by Meganmccarty Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Swallowtail butterfly family.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyyxenes) butterfly chrysalis by Meganmccarty Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Quick Facts

  • Common name: Black Swallowtail, American Swallowtail
  • Scientific name: Papilio polyxenes
  • Family name: Swallowtails (Papilionidae)
  • Range: Eastern North America, MidWest, southwestern region, and southern California
  • Habitat: open areas such as fields, suburbs, marshes, deserts and roadsides
  • Eggs: smooth, pale cream colored sphere with a swoosh of red around its’ middle; laid singly on leaves
  • Larva: yellow-green, bluish-green or whitish-green with black lines between segments
  • Host plant(s): Carrot/Parsley family (Apiaceae) wild carrot, dill, parsley, parsnip
  • Chrysalis: light brown with harness
  • Adult food: nectar, mud or mineral puddling
  • Sexes: Male has yellow spots; female has creamy white spots on the wings
  • Wingspan: average 3.2 inches
  • Flight: lies a few feet above the ground, fast moving

The Key Takeaways

This butterflies are fast fliers and sometimes I don’t get to see the top side of the wings. I look for the double rows of white spots, the yellow spots on the males and the white and blue spots on the female. Just the other day, I all I could make out on a visitor to my garden was the blue spots. Okay, let’s all that one a female Black Swallowtail.

If these butterflies are frequent fliers in your area, make sure you have plenty of nectar and hostplants for them and you’ll be rewarded with Black Swallowtails not just visiting but living and reproducing right in your backyard.

 

 

Butterfly Life: How Butterflies are Born, Live, and Support the Earth’s Ecosystems.

I’ve written a guide to explaining how butterflies develop, their roles in ecosystems, and the habitat needs. The guide explains butterfly migration and how they navigate. It is on sale in the website store. Buy it here.

 

Related Posts

The Adult Butterfly Life Cycle

Butterfly Family: Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies

The Swallowtail Butterfly Family

The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

Black Swallowtail Larvae, Last of the Summer Butterflies

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Golden Alexanders: Pollinator Magnet, Black Swallowtail Host Plant

flat flower heads Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) in silhouette in my garden.

The Golden Alexanders in my garden are in full bloom. And the bees and flies and other tiny pollinators are loving it.

You rarely see Golden Alexanders mentioned in lists of pollinator plants, but I thought the flowers were pretty and I needed a spring blooming plant for my garden.

I didn’t expect the many little pollinators to flock to the golden yellow umbel flowers that create their own little meadow.

open flower cluster Golden Alexander
Open and airy flower cluster – Golden Alexanders.

The flowers of Golden Alexanders have many flowers and nectaries that make nectar. The flowers are grouped in a cluster, called an inflorescence. The inflorescence  is shaped like an umbrella (botanical term umbel).

I counted 10 -13 tiny nectar-filled flowers in each cluster or inflorescence. And there are 10- 14 clusters on each stalk. There are about 65+ stalks on the plant.

Each stalk has between 100 and 130 tiny flowers times 65 stalks. Doing the math that is about 6,000 to 8,450 tiny flowers with nectaries on my stand of Golden Alexanders. 

narrow leaves - Golden Alexander
narrow leaves – Golden Alexander

 

How to Grow Golden Alexanders

The plant I planted is the straight species, not a variety or a cultivar. It is native to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have found it relatively easy to buy at native plant sales and nurseries.

I often see Heart-leaved Alexanders (Zizia aptera) profiled in gardening books. I think the heart-shaped leaves is the attraction. But Zizia aurea is just as good a plant.

The plant 24 inches wide by 28 inches high by 20 inches deep. And I planted just one plant about two years ago.

The plant has a clumping growth habit. Clumping is what I call plants that stay in a roughly circular mass of plants. A circular mass that grows larger with each passing year. It spread outward from a central plant. They don’t run and spread over the place. They pretty much stay in one spot.

 

low, compact plant - Golden Alexanders.
A low, compact plant – Golden Alexanders.

Garden Uses of Golden Alexanders

I planted the one Golden Alexander plant at the edge of a small flower bed. On the edge it receives full sun most of the morning and shade in the afternoon. It receives adequate water. I will water it in the droughty July weather. 

I initially planted Golden Alexanders because I wanted more spring blooming flowers. I didn’t realize just how airy and pretty the plant is in the garden.

I think it makes a good, “near the front of the border” plant. It isn’t too tall. Mine plant is about 28 inches high, but the flowers aren’t dense on the stalks. You can see through the plant.

It may even look good as a cut flower, but I don’t want to take the food away from the pollinators.

flat flower heads Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Flat top, umbrella shaped flower clusters of Golden Alexanders in my garden.

Planting Information

Common name: Golden Alexanders

Scientific name: Zizia aurea

Family name: Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (Carrot or Parsley Family). Other family members include: carrots, parsley, coriander, chervil, angelica, celery, and lovage. Also the highly toxic hemlock and spotted cowbane.

Description: The plant reminds me of Queen’s Anne Lace. except this plant has rich yellow flowers. The foliage is low to the ground with thin flower spikes that stand above the low foliage leaves. At the top and end of the flower stalks are clusters of flowers in a umbrella-shaped somewhat flat-top platform.

 

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)- flower cluster from above.

Native range: Quebec to Saskatchewan south to Texas and Florida

Habitat: moist meadows and low woods.

Height: 12 to 36 inches

Light needed: sun to partial shade

Moisture needed: moist to wet

Hardiness zones: 4 – 9

Bloom period: late spring

Bloom color: yellow

Propagation: easy from seed, easy to grow

Growing Tips: Some sources said this plant can spread vigorously. That may be in its ideal moist to wet conditions. I have my plant in a partially sun spot, which can be a bit dry. If you can concerned about it vigorously spreading, put it in a pot or at the edge of a barrier like I have next to a concrete path.

Ecosystem Roles and Habitat Garden Uses

Attracts: many tiny and small pollinators such as flies and bees. May attract butterflies to the nectar.

Host plant to: Black Swallowtail Butterfly

 

spent flowers Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Spent flowers, Golden Alexanders

Works Consulted

A list of book I used for background information. The links open at Amazon.com, of which I am an affiliate.

Cullina, William. The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada. 1st ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000.

Gracie, Carol. Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Leopold, Donald Joseph. Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening & Conservation. 1st. Portland, Or: Timber Press, 2005.

Ottesen, Carole. The Native Plant Primer. 1st ed. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.

 

More Related Posts

Why are the First Flowers of Spring White or Yellow? 

Butterfly Family: The Swallowtails 

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like 

 

Buying Native Plants in Philadelphia

Schuylkill Center’s online Native Plant Sale with Curb-side pickup

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Early Autumn Butterflies in My Garden

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly larvae muching on Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) leaf in my back garden.

 

Tiger Swallowtail in Joe-Pye Weed
Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from Joe-Pye Weed.

Nature Journal – September 24th

It’s late in the season, but autumn butterflies filled my garden. I saw two big beautiful butterflies this past week. And one very hungry caterpillar.

I spend many hours in my garden now that the daytime temperatures have cooled down. I am weeding and making plans for next year.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are common and widespread in the east. Their large size and dramatic color are eye-catching.

This Tiger Swallowtail is sipping nectar on a spent Zinna blossom. I am surprised there is any nectar left. The flower looks done. Zinnias are favorites of butterflies. If you want an annual that can take hot, dry conditions and bloom all summer and attract many species of butterflies, Zinnias are rock stars. More on Swallowtail Butterflies.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos) in my back garden.
Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos) in my back garden.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos)

At least I think this is Pearl Crescent. Scientists have split species into so many similar species that it is hard to tell who is who sometimes. If you can only see the differences on a microscopic level, I am hesitant about whether it is separate from a close look-a-like.

The Pearl Crescent is just one example. Are the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos), Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis), Northern (Phyciodes selenis), Tawny Checkerspots  (Phyciodes batesii) or Harris’ Checkerspot (Chlosyne harrisii) really all that different? It seems the main difference between the species is the amount of black pigment on the wings.

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) in my back garden.
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) in my back garden.

Autumn Asters Attract Autumn Butterflies

The asters are beginning to bloom in my garden. As many aster species are their hostplants.  I have a large New England Aster ready to burst into bloom.

Pearl Crescents are common in the east. And they are known for wide variations in appearance. Most Checkerspots and Crescent (Family Nympahalinae; Tribe: Melitaeini) butterflies enter autumn hibernation as half-grown larvae. Once the day-length and correct number of cold days have been reached, the larvae will un-thaw and continue its’ growth cycle.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly larvae muching on Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) leaf in my back garden.
Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly larvae munching on Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) leaf in my back garden.

Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)

The Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was in glorious bloom this summer. It took many years of failure to get a plant established. It was worth because this beauty showed up. A late stage instar (caterpillar/larvae) of the Monarch Butterfly munches on a Butterfly Weed leaf.

Plants of the Milkweed family are the hostplants of Milkweed butterfly. The butterflies are called Milkweed butterflies because the plants are their main hostplants. The adult  butterflies get their awful taste from eating the leaves and flowers of milkweed plants as a caterpillar. An adult Monarch is poisonous only if it ate a poisonous plant when it was a caterpillar.  In adult Monarchs, the wings and abdomen store more poisons than the rest of the body.

butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in bloom in my back garden.

The Milkweed plants in my garden allow butterflies to spend their entire lifecycle in my garden. With both hostplants and nectar sources in my garden I see adult butterflies, eggs, and caterpillars.

Monarch butterflies overwinter as adults – in central Mexico. So this last stage larvae (caterpillar) will probably metamorphosis into an adult soon and fly south. Cape May State Park on the most southern tip of New Jersey is a great place to watch thousands of Monarch leave the mainland of the North America and cross the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in central Mexico.

Attracting Autumn Butterflies

It only takes planting the right native plants and providing certain features to attract a wide assortment of butterflies to your garden. During the pandemic, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have my gardens to enjoy.

Citizen Science: Monarch Watch on MonarchWatch.org 

Related Posts

The Butterfly House at Tyler Arboretum

The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Pollinators

 

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly: How to Identify and Find Them

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Swallowtail butterfly family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Tiger Swallowtail in Joe-Pye Weed
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from Joe-Pye Weed. Photo by Donna L. Long

This butterfly is a big butterfly. The southern Eastern Tiger Swallowtail females rank as the largest butterflies in North America. You can’t miss this one slowly flapping its wings but still moving fast. Swallowtails are one of six butterfly families in North America. I wrote about the Swallowtail Butterfly Family here.

The Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with its’ yellow and black stripes, looks like a tiger. Notice the long black tails on the lower hind wing.

"Group

Where the Tiger Swallowtails Live

The Eastern, Canadian, Western, and Two-tailed Swallowtails all have very similar coloring.

If you live in the western United States, then the big yellow and black butterfly is either a Western (Papilio rurtulus) or a Two-tailed (Papilio multicaudata) Swallowtail.

Here in the eastern U.S., it is an Eastern Tiger (Papilio glaucus) or a Canadian Tiger (Papilio canadensis) Swallowtail.

The Eastern Tiger has a large range and there may be overlap with the two western species in the Great Plains region.

I write about the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail because that is the one I am familiar with.

 

How the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails Differ from Similar Butterflies

The differences between the Canadian Tiger (Papilio canadensis) and Eastern Tiger (Papilio glaucus) is mainly one of temperature and size. The Canadian can survive colder winter temperatures than the Eastern. The Canadian produce one brood a year; the Eastern 2 to 3. The Canadian is also smaller.

The Eastern and Western Swallowtails are identified by range. The Two-tailed Swallowtail has two black tails on each of its’ hind wings. The Eastern has one tail.

Life Cycle of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

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Adult Life Cycle Stage

The Adult Eastern lives 6 to 14 days. The adults use their long proboscis (tongue) to reach in to flower blossoms and sip the nectar. These big butterflies prefer large, sturdy flowers like Purple Coneflowers (echinacea spp.) Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), and Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus). Male Easterns visit mud puddles drawn by sodium.

Attracting Swallowtail Butterflies: Nectar Plants and Host Plant Plant Lists

You can attract Tiger Swallowtails by providing nectar flowers for adult butterflies to sip (eat) and host plants for adult females to lay their eggs.

North American Butterfly Association Regional Garden Guides http://nababutterfly.com/regional-butterfly-garden-guides/

HOSTS – a Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/

New England Aster are a Buffet for Pollinators 

Mating

The ranges of the Eastern Tiger and Canadian Tiger Swallowtail overlap and hybrids occur in New England. The Eastern males patrol for females and use alluring pheromones to draw them near.

Flight Style

The wings are flapped in big, slow motions. But because of its’ size, this butterfly can move fast.

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Egg Life Cycle Stage

Simple round green eggs with a smooth texture. A single egg is laid on the top tip of a leaf. The egg hatches in 4 to 10 days. In the north the Eastern has 1 to 2 broods; in the southern areas 3 broods. The female uses her ovipositor to lay the single egg on a host plant need a nectar source.

"Second-Third

Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

The caterpillar (larva) looks like a bird dropping when it emerges from the egg. It is brown with a white middle. As the caterpillar grows it turns from brown and white to light green. The front of the caterpillar looks swollen compare to the rear.

At this stage the caterpillar is bird food. Looking like a bird dropping is good protection.

When it prepares to pupate (turn into a chrysalis) the larva turns brown. The larva forms lasts 3-4 weeks. The pupua stage lasts 10-20 days unless it overwinters.

 

Host Plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Larva

The larva eat a wide variety of deciduous tree leaves including Tulip Poplar and Sweet Bay Magnolia.

Eastern Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio glaucus) chrysalis attached to wood. TheAlphaWolf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]
Eastern Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio glaucus) chrysalis attached to wood. TheAlphaWolf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage

The Chrysalis is a long cylinder with a “horn” on its’ top end. A silken thread acts like a sling to kee the chrysalis attached to the branch until spring when the adult butterfly will emerge. The chrysalis can be shades of green or brown.

Overwintering

The Eastern Tiger overwinters as a chrysalis a harden protective shell in larval (pupae) form. The chrysalis may be green or shades of brown. Few Swallowtails migrate even though they are large enough to do so.

 

 

Quick Facts About the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Common name: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Scientific name: Papilio glaucus
Family name: Swallowtails (Papilionidae)
Wingspan: average 4.8 inches
Range: Eastern and mid-western North America
Habitat: nearly anywhere with deciduous trees, the adults eat nectar
Host plant(s): A wide variety of tree leaves. In the north: Aspens: in the South: black cherry, tulip tree, sweet bay, etc.
Adult food: Nectar, puddling
Note: Southern females are the largest butterflies in North America.

Links to other posts and websites

Black Swallowtails: How to Identify Them

Photographing Butterflies 

Observing Butterflies at Home and Far Away

The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies 

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist 

Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklists – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

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Red-spotted Purple Butterfly: How to Find and Identify It

Red-spotted Purple Butterfly in Tyler State Park, PA. MikeParker at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]
Red-Spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax). Nymphalids (Brushfoot family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Red-Spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax). Nymphalids (Brushfoot family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

I often get the Red-spotted Purple butterfly confused with Pipevine Swallowtails, Spicebush Swallowtails or Black Swallowtails.

If the wings are closed, Red-spotted Purples look similar to White Admirals (Limenitis arthemis arthemis). In fact, the Red-spotted Admiral and the White Admiral are considered two different forms of the same species. The two forms mate and hybridize freely.

The only cure for my confusion is a little research. 

Where to Find Red-spotted Purple Butterflies

The White Admiral is found in a more northern range than the Red Admiral. The White Admiral is found in Canada, Alaska, and the subarctic.

The two forms, White Admirals and Red-spotted Purples interbreed and overlap in an area which includes from Minnesota to Pennsylvania to Maine. In the overlapping area the hybrid offspring may exhibit a combination of traits from both forms. 

The Red Admiral has a more southern the area below the Great Lakes to Florida. The Red-spotted Purple occurs mainly in the Eastern half of the United States, from Pennsylvania west to the mid-west, southward to eastern Texas, east to Florida. 

The butterfly is medium-sized with rounded dark wings. There several rows of white spots along the hind-edge of the wings. And four or so spots of orange above the white. The dark wings probably soak up the warmth of the Sun which allows the White Admiral to live as far north as Alaska and subarctic Canada. Canada doesn’t have that many butterfly species and the White Admiral is one of them.

Look for both forms at the edges of boreal or deciduous forests. They like forest edges, open fields, and scrubby habitats. The Red-spooted can often be found along coastal plains. The males often visit mud puddles.

Red-spotted Purple Life Cycle

The Red-spotted Purple’s life cycle season spans from May through October. In the norhern part of its’ range tthere is 1 generation. In he mid-part of its’ range there is 2 generations and three generations in the southern range.

Adult Life Cycle Stage
Adults feed on sap, fruit, flower nectar, carrion, dung, honeydew, decaying wood, among other substances. The Adult lives for 6-14 days.

Mating
Male Red-spotted Purples perch on trees and tall bushes and wait for a female to pass by.

Egg Life Cycle Stage
The eggs are grayish-green. The eggs are covered with dimples like a gold golf ball. A single egg is laid on the topside tip of the hostplant leaf, often of a young plant. The eggs hatch in 4-9 days. There are two broods in the north; and 2-3 broods in the south.

Larva of Limenitis ursula (Red-spotted Purple)
Larva of Limenitis ursula (Red-spotted Purple) from Moths and butterflies of the United States (1900) by Sherman F. Denton (1856-1937). Digitally enhanced from our own publication.

Caterpillar (larva) Life Cycle Stage
The larva is brown, green or whitish-green and sometimes has green around the saddle are of the body. They look like bird droppings. Pointy blackish horns jut out from both sides of the head. The antennae have prickles along  their lenght. The caterpillar lives 3-4 weeks before pupating. The Pupa last 7-14 days. The larva feed at night.

 

Host Plants
Larva eat many kinds of dicotyledonous plants. Common hostplants include Wild cherry, aspens, poplars, cottonwoods, birches, willows, hawthorn, serviceberry, basswood and deerberry.

Chrysalis of Limenitis ursula (Red-spotted Purple)
Chrysalis of Limenitis ursula (Red-spotted Purple) from Moths and butterflies of the United States (1900) by Sherman F. Denton (1856-1937). Rawpixel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Chrysalis (Pupa) Life Cycle Stage
Red-spotted Purple pupa is slightly different from the White Admiral. But again the two species interbred. The red-spotted pupa or chrysalis is yellowish-brown and pinkish and mottled dark green and gray. It looks like a bird dropping, much like the caterpillar does. The antennae have prickles.

Overwintering
The Red-spotted Purple overwinters as larva. The larva born in late summer spend the winter in a hibernaculum made from a folded leaf. The leaf is rolled and looks like dead. The larva overwinter in the instar stage of development.

Red-spotted Purple Butterfly in Tyler State Park, PA. MikeParker at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]
Red-spotted Purple Butterfly in Tyler State Park, PA. MikeParker at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

Quick Facts About the Red-spotted Purple

Common name: Red-spotted Purple
Scientific name: Limenitis arthemis astyanax
Wingspan and Flight Style: Averages 3.2 inches, strong graceful flight
Family: Nymphalids (Brush-footed)
Range: East, South, Southeast, Midwest, Texas and New Mexico.
Habitat:

Open woods, the edges of woods and open fields

Host plant(s) Varies widely. Wild cherry, aspens, poplars, cottonwoods, birches, willows, hawthorn, serviceberry, basswood and deerberry.
Adult food: Nectar, visits mud puddles for minerals
Note: Blue on hind wind, no tails. Looks like a White Admiral or a Pipevine Swallowtail.

 

More on Butterflies

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Life Cycle

 

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Red Admiral Butterfly and Flowers That Attract Them.

Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa Atalanta) sipping salts from human skin.
Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa Atalanta) sipping salts from human skin.
Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa Atalanta) sipping salts from human skin.

A Red Admiral butterfly was sipping nectar from the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Purpurea) in my garden the other day. When I see a Red Admiral, I always catch my breath. It is something about the curved band of red on the dark black wings that delight me. These aren’t big butterflies but their colors are very arresting. They get noticed. No other butterfly has a wing pattern like Red Admirals.

My late cousin Vanessa liked the fact that her name Vanessa means “butterfly” in Greek. She struggled for several years against an illness that took her life. Not long before she died she spoke to me about what the metamorphosis and rebirth of the butterfly meant to her. I see many butterflies during the summer. Yet when I see the Red Admiral it reminds me of my late cousin Vanessa.

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) Photo by Donna L. Long.
Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) Photo by Donna L. Long.

Around the World

The Red Admiral is an extremely versatile butterfly that lives in varied habitats. They live almost everywhere in the Northern hemisphere. Red Admirals are found from the subtropics to the arctic tundra. This butterfly species lives in North Africa, Guatemala, the Canary Islands, the entire United States, and most of Canada.

 

Spring and Fall Migration

During their spring migration, you can spot a Red Admiral from mountaintops to big city streets. The Red Admiral’s southbound fall migration still needs study. If you’re in  Europe help track migration for the Menz Laboratory at the University of Bern. In North America, The Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site has information on migration.

 

Finding and Attracting Red Admiral Butterflies

So, you can spot Red Admiral butterflies just about anywhere. The species is very common in the Philadelphia area and up and down the east coast. Red Admiral butterflies are common in open spaces. They fly fast and zigzagging among the flowers in the hot sun.

So far this summer, these butterflies have visited my garden.

I am sure there are other species that I didn’t see. Most of the flowers in my garden are native to my local area. Because of this many butterflies and other pollinators are attracted in my garden.

Since I have about ten plants of summer blooming Purple Coneflower, I see plenty of butterflies in June and July. I will have many butterflies in my garden in the fall. Mainly because I have several Sedum Autumn Joy plants and New England Asters that bloom then.

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) -closeup of wing - Photo by Donna L. Long.
Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) – closeup of the wing – Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Hostplants to Entice the Red Admiral Butterfly to Lay Eggs in Your Garden

Mostly Nettles

  • Stinging Nettles (Urtica doica)
  • Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
  • False Nettles (Boehmeria cylindrica)
  • Pellitory (Parietaria pennsylvanica)

Nectar Plants to Attract Adult Red Admiral Butterflies

  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Purpurea)
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias species)
  • Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
  • Asters
Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) - Brushfoot Family (Nymphalini). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) – Brushfoot Family (Nymphalini). Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Red Admiral Butterfly Basics

Common name: Red Admiral
Scientific name: Vanessa atalanta
Wingspan: average: 2.1 inches
Family: Nymphalids (Brush-Footed)
Range: All regions of the U.S.
Habitat: Nearly any open space
Host plant(s): Mostly nettles
Adult food: Sap, decaying matter, nectar
Notes: Fast, zig-zagging flight

 

More Information on This Website

Early Spring Butterflies 

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Observing Butterflies At Home and Far Away 

Pollinator Syndromes: Predicting Which Flowers Insects Will Like

Why Native Plants?

 

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How Do Mourning Cloak Butterflies Fly in the Cold of Early Spring?

Male Morning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa);NPS, Richard Lund,2002
Male Morning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa);NPS, Richard Lund,2002
Male Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa); NPS, Richard Lund,2002

Mourning Cloaks make their first appearance early in spring. They are large black butterflies with iridescent blue spots along the gold-trimmed hind edge of their wings.

Mourning Cloaks are not the earliest butterflies to emerge in spring, but they are still out before most butterflies.

The first adults of the spring emerge looking raggedy. The wings may be torn and worn along the edges. This is because of how the butterflies spend the winter.

Mourning Cloaks don’t migrate but spend the winter in cold areas in hibernation. The sleep through the coldest times of the years. Being cold-blooded insects they can’t make enough body heat to keep themselves active through the cold season. But, they can be active in cold weather for short periods of time.

How Do They Survive the Cold?

The same way other hibernating insects do with the help of an anti-freeze like substances called glycerols in their blood.

Mourning Cloaks find nooks, crannies, and crevices of places like tree bark to wedge themselves in to protect themselves from the cold. The butterfly does hibernate through most of the winter.

They can emerge as early as February to feed on the sap running in trees.  I think I have seen butterflies in February or March once or twice.

Before emerging in mid-winter, Mourning Cloaks shiver and raise their body temperature up to fifteen degrees warmer than the surrounding air. This enables the butterfly to emerge while the air temperature is still cool for most butterflies.

As the sun goes down they return to their crevices.

Factoid: When this big butterfly strays to England in the British Isles, it is called the Camberwell Beauty.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly Facts

Common name: Mourning Cloak
Scientific name: Nymphalis antiopa
Wingspan: Averages 3.0 inches
Family: Nymphalids (Brush-Footed)
Range: All regions of the United States
Habitat: Wandering and adaptable in woodlands, parks, suburbs, swamp edges, river bank edges
Host plant(s): Varies widely: Willows, elms, cottonwoods, aspens, birches, hackberry, and other broadleaf trees.
Adult food: Sap and decaying matter; occasionally nectar during summer
Note: Broad yellow wing edges

More Mourning Cloak Information

Nymphalis antiopa – Animal Diversity Website

Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) – North American Butterfly Association – Massachusetts Butterfly Club Chapter

The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

The Adult Butterfly (Butterfly Life Cycle )

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My Community Garden Plot This Summer.

My first harvest from the new garden plot.
My first harvest from the new garden plot.
My first harvest from the new garden plot.

This has been an incredibly busy summer. I started a new/second community garden plot back in the spring. Those of you who subscribe to this blog received a post back in the spring highlighting the sweat equity my mother and I put into the garden plot. I promised an update and here it is.

 

The first community garden plot, July 2017.
The first community garden plot, before cleanup, July 2017.

My first community garden plot was a weedy, junk-filled space. We started by pulling and composting weeds. Then I started on the junk. That was last year. When this spring 2018 rolled around I hadn’t made one raised bed and the growing season was about to start. Then I spied an unoccupied garden close to mine. I snapped it up. It took little work to make it a productive little garden.

 

The second community garden plot, after remove of a small amount of weeds and junk, April 2018.
The second community garden plot, after removal of a resonable amount of weeds and junk, May 2018.

 

This second plot didn’t have near the growth of weeds to remove because I started at a different time of the year. The first plot was acquired in July 2017, the height of the growing season. Lesson learned? Clean up a plot or garden when the growing season is over or when the weeds have died back.

The raised beds were already in place. You can see the back half of the plot with plastic covering the plots to try to battle the weeds. I laid the black commercial grade weed barrier which works like a dream. No mowing or pulling weeds in the heat of summer for me!

 

The community garden plot fully planted in August 2018.
The community garden plot fully planted in early June 2018.

Here is what the new garden plot looked like in this past June 2018.

And here it is August 2018 with the Zinnias blooming their heads off and attracting butterflies at midday.

Zinnias blooming and attracting butterflies.
Zinnias blooming and attracting butterflies. The garden is lush.

 

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) in a Zinnia.
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) in a Zinnia.

The photo is blurry but you can see the raised center of the flower. Newly opened, un-pollinated Zinnias are flat in the center.

 

My first harvest from the new garden plot.
My first harvest from the new garden plot.

 

My first harvest. Here we have cucumbers, soybeans, straight neck summer squash, Swiss chard, and zinnias. And here are some of the tomatoes I harvested later in the summer.

 

Tomatoes grown in my community garden plot.
Tomatoes grown in my community garden plot.

 

I am very pleased and surprised I was able to plant crops and pick a respectful harvest from a plot I just rented in March 2018.

I will be teaching three, yes, three classes at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree this November. The classes are:

Gardening 101  – This course is for new gardeners who want to plant a beautiful ornamental garden on their property. We will focus on flowers and attractive trees and shrubs. There are two sessions, November 1 and 8th, 201, 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.

Your First Organic Garden – We will focus on how to turn a rented community garden plot or your own backyard into a productive and money-saving garden. You’ll choose the most cost-effective vegetables, herbs, and fruits to grow. At the end of the workshop, you will have a garden designed, planned, and mapped out using Square Foot gardening, the best modular planting system in use today. There are two sessions November 12th and 19th, 2018, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

and
The Gardener’s Calendar – In this class you will learn when to schedule seed starting, transplanting, and pruning, and how to plan and organize your chores to have a more successful and productive garden. This class was very popular last year. There is one session, November 14, 2018, 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.

If you know of someone who can benefit from these classes, please let them know.

If you would like to contact me to hold a class for your organization, contact me.

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Metalmark Butterfly Family

Northern Metamark (Calephelis borealis).
Northern Metamark (Calephelis borealis).
Northern Metamark (Calephelis borealis). By Eric Haley from Winter Park, Florida, Wikicommons

Metalmark butterflies are a diverse family of butterflies that live mostly in the Americas. The name “metalmark” comes from the metallic markings of many species. Some members of the family lack these markings completely. Most metalmarks have wings with black spots and checkered patterns. Metalmark butterflies have more angular shares and softer hues than checkerspots and crescentspots.

Metamarks (Riodinidae) are classified as a subfamily of Lycaenidae.

Zygia metalmark (Lemonias zygia zygia)
Zygia metalmark (Lemonias zygia zygia), The Pantanal, Brazil. By Charlesjsharp

Population

The Metalmark family has about 1,000 species worldwide. Ninety percent of those species are found in the Americas and the Caribbean. Tropical species have a wide variety of size, color, and wing shape.

Twenty-four species are found in North America. Most species occur in the southern regions of the United States. Three species are in the eastern region of North America. Two species live along the east coast from Maine to Florida. All eastern species are small, orange-colored with metallic-looking flecks on the wings. The life history of the North American species is not well-known. Study of their habits and life history is needed.

 

Adult Life Cycle Stage

Most metalmarks have subtly colored brown, gray or rust-colored wings. The tropical members of the family have dark colored wings with brilliant colored patterns. North American butterflies have small wingspans. The wingspan range form ⅝” to 2″.

Male metalmarks have shortened front legs. The male’s front legs are half the length of the other four legs. These short front legs are not used for walking. The females front legs are only slightly reduced and are used for walking.

The wings have distinctive wing vein patterns.

All adults feed on flower nectar.

Mating

Males commonly perch to wait for a female to approach him. Some species may patrol for mates.

Flight and Perching Style

The adults rest, bask and feed with their wings wing open. Most metalmarks perch on the undersides of leaves and hold their wings flat. Some keep them open at about a 45-degree angle.

Adult metalmarks don’t wander around. They very choosy about where they live. They like sunny places.  Swamp and dune-living species are threatened because the habitats they prefer are being drained by

humans for building. Metalmarks stay locally and almost never migrate.

Adults perch for a long time on leaves or near their host plants.

Metalmarks aren’t strong fliers. The fly fast and in erratic patterns. 

Egg Life Cycle Stage

Eggs vary widely in shape. Most are shaped like a sea urchin.

 

Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

Caterpillars are slug-shaped with dense tufts of long, fine hairs (setae). Many larvae are attended by ants.

 

Host Plants of Metalmark Butterflies

The larva eats dicotyledons plants. They don’t eat grasses or sedges. 

 

Pupae and Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage

Pupae are stocky with silk.

The downy chrysalis is attached with silk to leaf litter or to the stem of a host plant.

 

How the Metamark Butterflies Spend the Winter

Metalmark butterflies spend the winter in the larval or pupal stage.

 

Subfamilies of the Metalmark Butterfly Family

Eastern Species

Of the eastern-occurring, the Metamarks neither is regularly found in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia region.

Northern Metamark (Calephelis borealis).
Northern Metamark (Calephelis borealis). By Eric Haley from Winter Park, Florida, Wikicommons

Northern Metalmark (Calephelis borealis) – This species is found in Pennsylvania, but necessarily in Philadelphia. The Hostplants for the Northern Metalmark: the main plant maybe only hostplant is Roundleaf Ragwort (Senecio obovatus). The eggs are laid on the underside of the hostplant leaves. 

 

Little Metalmark (Calephelis virginiesis)
Little Metalmark (Calephelis virginiesis) By Judy Gallagher

Little Metalmark (Calephelis virginiensis) – Doesn’t occur in Pennsylvania but found in the southeastern region of the United States. Not much is known about this species.  Hosplants are not fully studied. Yellow thistle (Cirsium borridulum) is one known host. More on the Little Metalmark. 

 

Links to Other Posts In this Series

The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

The Butterfly Life Cycle: Adult

Observing Butterflies at Home and Far Away

 

Links to Other Websites

eButterfly.org – a citizen science site which tracks butterfly abundance and biodiversity.

Butterfly and Moths of North America – collects and shares butterfly data

The Children’s Butterfly Site – coloring pages, photos, and more

References

Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer’s Guide. Rick Cash and Guy Tudor. Princeton: Princeton University, 2005.

The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide by James A. Scott. Stanford: Stanford Univerisity, 1986.

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner. Princeton: Princeton University, 2005.

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Identifying Common Butterflies – Photo Gallery

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) - female. Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family. Photo by Donna Long.
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) - female. Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family. Photo by Donna Long.
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) – female. Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family. Photo by Donna Long.

Identifying common butterflies is easier with photographs or drawings. I put together this photo gallery of butterflies. I took just about every photo either in my garden or around the Philadelphia area. As I take more butterfly photos, I will add to the gallery.

Some of the butterflies have photos of larva and adult life stages. I have included both the local common names and scientific names of each butterfly. I couldn’t name a couple of the moths, I couldn’t find their names but if you know their names feel free to contact me and I’ll add their correct name.

Identifying Common Butterflies of the Philadelphia Area and Beyond

Each region of the North American continent supports butterflies. Some places have many species of butterflies other have few. The further north you go, the few species there are. The Philadelphia area has 115 species of butterflies. I have only spotted a tiny fraction of the available species. A checklist of the 115 species is available at Butterfly and Moths.org checklist. You can choose your region and download a pdf checklist of the butterflies for your area. the regions covered include the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Identifying Butterflies and Why Its Become So Popular

Birders head out in early spring to identify migrating birds. But once the birds begin to nest, birders stop hiking through woods and wetlands. They don’t want to disturb the nesting birds. They want nesting birds to be successful at raising their young, so they stay away from nesting areas.

But butterflies don’t need to be let alone to raise young because they don’t raise their young. The female butterfly lays her eggs and off she goes. During the heat of summer, butterflies are abundant and can be spotted and observed without concern of disturbing nesting. And this is why many birders turn to identifying and observing butterflies during the summer months. It puts to use those expensive binoculars birders have.

Click on each image to see the name of the butterfly.

 

Related Posts

Early Autumn Butterflies in My Garden

The Six Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

 

 

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Gossamer Butterfly Family (Lycaenidae)

Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) - Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.
Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) - Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.
Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) – Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.

Gossamer Wing family butterfly is called the “gossamers” because some of the butterflies have wings, which are so sheer and delicate the wings look like the soft, filmy, sheer fabric called gossamer. They are also called “the little butterflies” because many butterflies in the family are small with wing spans of ⅞” to 2’’ (22 – 51 mm) wide.

 

Population

The Gossamer family includes about 4700 worldwide. It is possibly the largest of the butterfly families. There are many species in the tropical areas of the planet. There are 142 species in North America, including several in the Arctic. Approximately, 55 species make the East Coast region of the U.S. their home.

Scientists divide the family into four lycaenid subfamilies: Harvesters, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Blues.

 

Adult Life Cycle Stage

None of the adult Gossamer butterflies mimic any other known specie of butterflies. Many Gossamer butterflies have eyespots and hair like tails on their hindwings., which are usually on the opposite end of their real eyes and antennae. These butterflies don’t migrate but live, reproduce and overwinter locally without coming or going to other areas. Except for one species, the Pygmy Blue, does migrate.

Mating

The males of most of the Gossamer group perch and wait for females to fly by, except for the Blues. The Blue males generally patrol to find females.

Flight Style

These butterflies have large bodies and small wings. They are strong fliers. They often don’t fly more than several feet without landing. This makes them easy to see. Some species are swifter fliers or more erratic in flight that others. These Little butterflies tend to rest with wings closed but bask with wings open, except for the some of the Hairstreaks.

 

Egg Life Cycle Stage

The eggs of the butterflies in this family are highly ornamental. A single egg is laid on a plant, on new growth or near where new growth is expected to be in the spring.

 

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) Butterfly Larva/Caterpillar. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). by Megan_McCarty39 via WikiCommons.
Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) Butterfly Larva/Caterpillar. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). by Megan_McCarty39 via WikiCommons.

Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

The larvae are inconspicuous and secretive. These caterpillars don’t have the waving osmeterium of the Swallowtails of the outrageous appearance of the Brushfoots butterflies

Almost half of the 5,000 Lycaenidae (Gossamer) species are tended by ants. This works out over 2,500 species. Many larvae associate with ants in one way or another. Ants, attend many Gossamer caterpillars, especially the Blues. Many of the pupae emit chirp-like squeaks most likely to communicate with ants.

The ants bring the caterpillars to the ants’ nests where they tend the caterpillars and protect them from parasites and predators. The caterpillars in turn, produce a substance called “honeydew” which the ants feed on or feed to the ant larva.

 

Host Plants

Most Gossamer species eat flowers parts instead of just leaves as many other butterfly larva. A small number of Lycaenid larva fed on aphids or ant pupae, which makes these caterpillars carnivorous or flesh-eaters. Flesh-eating caterpillar sounds like something out of a nightmare.

The larvae eat dicotyledon plants, which have broad, stalked leaves with netlike veins. The plants include cedars, junipers, pines, vetches, blueberries, and curly dock among many others. This is different from the Grass Skippers, which eat grasses (monocotyledons), which have parallel veins. Most of the caterpillars in this family have specialized diets and can be identified by their hostplant. Many Hairstreaks and Blues specialize on flowers or fruits.

Why Native Plants are Important

 

Pupae and Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage

I couldn’t  find any information about the chrysalis of Gossamer butterflies. When I do I will update this section.

How the Butterflies Spend the Winter

These butterflies tend to spend the winter in the egg or chrysalis (pupae). The caterpillars can then hatch from the eggs or butterflies emerge from the pupae. When spring begins and the tender young leaves unfurl and flowers produce nectar, these caterpillars can eat these early food sources. The Gossamer Family’s Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) is one of the earliest butterflies to fly in the spring after the Mourning Cloaks, Commas, and Tortoiseshells, which overwinter as adults.

 

Subfamilies of Gossamer Butterfly Family

When researching these posts on the butterfly families, the point that different scientists count different families and subfamilies was very clear. Biologists are often called “lumpers” or “splitters”. Either they “lump” various species together as a group or family or they split them out into more separate groups based one characteristic or another. I decided to use the following subfamilies.

There are four subfamilies of Lycaenid is the East Coast region. A few species that are the most common and widespread are listed.

 

Harvester Butterfly (Feniseca tarquinius) (Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons.

Harvesters

There are 50 species in the world and 1 in the southeastern U.S. The Harvester common name refers to these caterpillars “harvesting” insects to eat. These caterpillars eat aphids, mealy bugs, leafhoppers and treehoppers. The Chrysalis or pupae is very wide and the top view looks like the head of a monkey.

  • Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) – The chrysalis (pupae) the top looks like a “monkey face”

 

American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons
American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons

Coppers

About 50 Copper butterflies species occur worldwide with 14 in North America ranging from the central U.S. up into the Arctic. The adult butterflies are often “copper or orange” in color. But they may be yellow, gray, blue or brown above and often white beneath. The eggs usually overwinter in North America. The adults are local and don’t migrate. All species feed on flower nectar as adults.

  • American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
  • Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus)

 

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) Butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) Butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth!  via Wikimedia Commons

Hairstreaks

There are about 2,000 species worldwide; 1,000 in the tropical areas of the Americas and 75 species in North America. Male Hairstreaks often have hair-like tails on their hindwings. These hair-like tails give the butterflies their common name. These tails aren’t as large or prominent of the tails on the hindwings of swallowtails. The larva eats a variety of broad leaf plants. The adults are swift erratic fliers that usually don’t fly far so they rarely migrate. Adults usually rest with their wings closed and usually bask with wings closed and sideways to the sun.

Here are two interesting facts:

Mating among the Hairstreaks occurs only in the afternoon or early evening in many species. If a mating pair is disturbed, the female usually flies off carrying the hanging male.

Hairstreak larvae that usually eat the leaves of shrubs or trees usually overwinter as eggs. The larvae that eat herbs or succulents usually overwinter as chrysalis (pupae).

  • Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus)
  • Banded Hairstreak (Satyr calanus) – one of the most common and widespread
  • Brown Elfin (Callophrys [=Decisuphagus] augustinus
  • Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) - Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.
Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) – Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.

Blues

Blue butterflies occur worldwide with many species in North America and Eurasia. There are 32 species in North America. Males are usually blue and females usually brown with some blue. Blue butterfly larvae eat plants of the leguminosae (legume) family. All the adults sip flower nectar.

The larva or pupae (chrysalis) usually hibernate overwinter but in two species the eggs hibernate. Blue have weak, fluttering flight. But even with the weak flight several Blues migrate. Blues rests with their wings closed and bask with their wings spread open. Blue also rub their hind wings together like other Gossamer butterflies.

During the mating season, male Blues patrol to find females. When mating pairs are disturbed, the male usually fly away with the female hanging on, the opposite of Hairstreaks.

  • Eastern-tiles Blue (Everes comyntas)
  • Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon/spp.)

Please feel free to comment, share a resource or ask and question in the comments below.

Links to other posts and websites in this Series

The Six Butterfly Families

The Swallowtail Butterfly Family

The Whites and Sulphurs Butterfly Family

The Skipper Butterfly Family

Links to other posts and websites

Facts about Butterflies and Moths

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly

The Adult Butterfly

Migrating Monarch at Cape May State Park

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbeanhttp://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml

References

Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t  find  book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)

Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)

 

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The Swallowtail Butterfly Family

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Swallowtail butterfly family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Adult Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly
Adult Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Swallowtail butterfly family includes large, attention-demanding butterflies. They are classified as members of the subfamily Papilionidae of the order Lepidoptera (butterflies, skippers and moths). The family also includes the Parnassian butterflies. There aren’t any Parnassian butterflies in the East Coast region of North America and I don’t discuss them here.

 

 

Population

There are between 475 and 563 species of Swallowtail butterflies worldwide. They’re found worldwide except in the Arctic. This butterfly family has many wonderful species in the tropical areas of the world. Of the subfamily Papilioninae, called “true swallowtails”, there are between 460 and 490 species worldwide with 28 of those species in North America; 12 species are in the East Coast region (Maine to Florida). Of the 12 species in the East Coast region, 9 are year around residents and 2 are strays.

 

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus). Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus). Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae). Photo by Donna L. Long.

How Swallowtails Differ from other Butterflies

What scientists call the “true swallowtails” have distinctive “tails” on their hind wings. The tails are projections which aid the butterfly during flight.

 

Adult Life Cycle Stage

The adults are large butterflies that can’t be missed. Many, if not most of the family, are black butterflies with other colors on their wings. The colors can be yellow, orange, red, green or blue. Many species have iridescent blue, black or green background wing color.

The males and females often have different markings, which need close inspection to see and distinguish. An excellent field guide on book on butterflies help to identify the species and explore the markings in more depth.

These big butterflies prefer to feed from tall plants. My Joe-Pye Weed stands about seven feet tall in my garden. When it is in bloom, I am always thrilled to see one with wings spread wide as it sips nectar from the tiny flowers. Adult butterflies sip nectar, caterpillars eat plants.

The males like to “puddle”. “Puddling” is gathering at a wet muddy or sandy spot and sipping minerals from the moisture. Puddling takes place at puddles, streamsides, and seeps, which are areas where water trickles up out of the ground and forms a pool.

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Ironweed
Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Ironweed in my garden.

Mating

The males either patrol or perch to find females. Their behavior to perch or patrol depends on the specie.

 

The Swallowtail Flight Style

These butterflies are strong fliers with large wings. Many continuously flap their wings when sipping nectar from flowers.

The Swallowtail family members have a very distinctive extension on their hind wings look like a tail. This tail resembles the wings of a swallow in flight. This is where the “swallowtail” name comes from. Scientists think the hind wing tails help to divert airflow over the wings and enable the butterflies to glide at angles higher than butterflies without hind wing tails. Butterflies without hind wing tails would stall and not be able to glide at high altitudes.

 

Egg Life Cycle Stage

For such a large butterfly, you would expect them to come from large eggs and they do. The eggs are large, plain and round. One egg is laid on a newly emerged leaf.

 

Black Swallowtail osterium
Black Swallowtail Butterfly flashes its osmeterium. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

Most Swallowtail larva look like bird droppings. Who wants to eat a bird dropping? That is precisely the point. The bird dropping appearance probably stops many animals who would eat a Swallowtail larva from trying.

The caterpillars have an organ that no other known butterflies have, called an osmeterium. This is orange-colored, Y-shaped organs, which are located behind the head and are raised and waved when the caterpillar feels threatened.  I poked at the Black Swallowtail caterpillar in the photo above and the orange osmeterium was waved at me. You can just see it in this photo. I must admit, it scared me, just a little.

Adult butterflies sip nectar, baby butterflies (caterpillars) eat plants.

 

flat flower heads Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Flat top, umbrella shaped flower clusters of Golden Alexanders in my garden.

Swallowtail Host Plants

Most of the larva (caterpillars) feed at night on specific food plants called host plants.

The body chemistry of the caterpillars can digest plants with chemicals (aristolchic acids, furnocoumarins, and acetogenins) which make the caterpillars taste bad. Some species are emetic, which means eating them makes birds and other vertebrates vomit.

Swallowtail host plants include:

Golden Alexanders

Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) – Zebra Swallowtail

Pipe Vines (Aristolochia)- Pipevine Swallowtail

Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) – Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – Spicebush Swallowtail

 

 

 

Tiger Swallowtail in Joe-Pye Weed
Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from Joe-Pye Weed.

Nectar Plants

These big butterflies prefer to feed from tall plants. My Joe-Pye Weed plants stands about seven feet tall in my garden. When it is in bloom, I am always thrilled to see a swallowtail with wings spread wide as it sips nectar from the tiny flowers.

Ironweed

See Golden Alexanders: Pollinator Magnet, Black Swallowtail Host Plant

 

spicebush swallowtail chrysalis
Spicebush Swallowtail chrysalis – Papilio troilu. Photo WikimediaJudy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage and How the Swallowtail Butterfly Spends the Winter

Most species spend the winter as a chrysalis. The caterpillar may wander several feet from its host plant to find a place to pupate or turn into a chrysalis. Chrysalis overwinter as pupae (chrysalis). In winter the caterpillar rests in a stage called diapause, not like hibernation but similar.

The chrysalis spends the winter under or attached to a stone or a piece of bark, in under leaf litter or other protected sites near the ground. Here is another example of the importance of leaf litter. The chrysalis is suspended from a surface by a silk thread acts as a sling or girdle. A hook bearing structure at the tail end of the chrysalis attaches the chrysalis to a little pad of silk, which is stuck to a surface from which the chrysalis hangs.

 

 

butterfly_tiger swallowtail
Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Zinnias.

The Swallowtail Butterflies in the East Coast region of North America

  • Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)
  • Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
  • Polydamas Swallowtail (Battus polydamas)
  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  • Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis)
  • Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio trolilus)
  • Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
  • Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
  • Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes)
  • Schaus’ Swallowtail (Papilio aristodemus) – extreme south Florida

The four Swallowtail Butterfly species I see regularly in Philadelphia are:

  1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  2. Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
  3. Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
  4. Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

My Butterfly Nature Guides

Butterfly Life: How Butterflies are Born. Live, and Support the Earth’s Ecosystems by Donna L. Long

Links to other posts

The 6 Butterfly Families

See Golden Alexanders: Pollinator Magnet, Black Swallowtail Host Plant

Butterflies and Moths Information and Links

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar (Butterfly Life Cycle)

Chrysalis Into Butterfly (The Butterfly Life Cycle)

The Adult Butterfly (The Butterfly Life Cycle)

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Observing Butterflies at Home 

Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml

References

Links lead to Amazon.com. I am an affiliate and receive a small fee that goes to support this blog. see FAQS: Buying from this Site.

Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t  find  book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)

Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)

Please comment, share a resource or ask and question in the comments below.

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Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) Butterfly. White and Sulphur butterfly family. [photo by Paul B. Toman. on Wikimedia]

 

Orange Sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) Whites and Sulphurs (Pierids) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Whites and Sulphurs are the most numerous and most often seen butterflies in the Philadelphia area where I live. They pass through my garden from late morning into late afternoon. I think the Cabbage White was the first butterfly I learned to identify. Cabbage Whites can be seen in the most cement and tree-less parts of a city including vacant lots. The Cabbage White isn’t indigenous to the Americas but arrived in Quebec in the 1860s. By 1900 it had spread across North America.

The Whites and Sulphurs are good butterfly families and species to start with if you are just learning how to identify butterflies. You are bound to see one just about everyday and in most places during the northern summers.

 

The Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family

Population of Whites and Sulphur Butterflies

There are 1100 species of White and Sulphur butterfly species in the world today. Most Whites and Sulphurs live in the tropics with a few occurring in the Arctic. The United States and Canada have 60 species. Twenty-two species live in in the East Coast region with 5 more species straying into the region occasionally for a total of 27 species in the East.

Adult Life Cycle Stage

Most Whites and Skippers are small to medium sized butterflies. Like their names, the butterflies’ wings are white, yellow or orange with small amounts of black or red. The white, yellow and orange colors come from pigments called pterines. These butteflies don’t have tails like Swallowtail butterflies but some species have a short projection on their rear hind wing (back wing). All adults of these species eat nectar sipped from flowers. Adults butterflies use all three pairs of legs to walk unlike Brushfoots which use just four of six legs.  Species in temperate areas can be darker and smaller in the spring and fall, and larger and lighter in color in the summer.

 

Mating Habits of Adults

There are animals that have colorations that we humans cannot see with the naked eye. Whites and Sulphur butterflies have ultraviolet patterns that apparently are useful in courtship. So these butterflies can see ultraviolet light, how cool is that?

In the eastern region of North America, the males of the species patrol for mates instead of perching and waiting for a passing female.

 

Flight Style of Adults

The Whites and Sulphurs are strong fliers that move in a straight and steady path. Sulphur butterflies will bask (sit in the sun) with wings closed and held over their backs. Whites bask in sunlight with their wings closed or partly open.

 

Egg Life Cycle Stage

The eggs are often orange, pink, or red. The eggs are shaped like vases or spindles and rest upright on one end.

Eggs are deposited one egg to a leaf, bud, or stem of hostplants. The female will not chose a plant where other butterfly eggs are laid. This is a smart move since most of the caterpillars in this butterfly family are cannibalistic.

 

Hostplants 

The Sulphur species caterpillars feed on legumes and the White butterflies feed on crucifers.

To understand the importance of hostplants see Why native plants?

 

Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

The caterpillars of the Whites and Sulphurs are smooth and covered with short, fine hairs on the body and head. The caterpillars are not showy but inconspicuous and don’t draw attention to themselves and look like the caterpillars of moths more than other butterflies.

Caterpillars (larva) are cylinder-shaped. Creases mark their bodies from one side to the other, giving the appearance of the body divided by many small segments.

The early instars (growth stages) of many species have hairs that reply ants and other insect and invertebrate predators.

 

Chrysalis of Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Whites and Sulphur butterfly family. Photo by Marshal Hedin on Wikimedia Commons.

Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage

Chrysalises are attached to a support by a silken mat and hang in a silk girdle slung around its middle.

 

Whites and Sulphurs in Winter – Overwintering (Diapause)

In the temperate regions these butterflies overwinter in the pupae or larval stage. In warm areas the tropical species overwinter as adults. The tropical species migrate northward in spring and early summer. The caterpillars can tolerate some cold and mild freezes.

 


A Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterfly visiting my garden.

The Whites Butterfly Subfamily (Pierinae)

The East Coast region White butterflies belong to this group. They are generalists who can be found in open-area such as meadows, gardens, and vacant lots. These butterflies produce many broods and can be numerous all summer long.

These medium-sized butterflies are mostly white colored with black wing borders and various dark marks on their wings. The ventral (underside) wing has greenish “marbling” or a pale yellowish was in some species. White butterflies will bask or sun themselves by positioning their wings so the warmth of the sun warms their bodies.

Many females in this group reflect ultraviolet light on their dorsal (back) wings as a signal they are female. The White butterfly males do not reflect ultraviolet.

 

Hostplants for the White butterfly caterpillars

Crucifers, which are plants in the mustard family, including turnips, cabbages, bok choy, radishes, cresses and others are the hostplants for the White butterfly caterpillars. The Crucifers all contain a substance called glucosinslates or “mustard oils” which may make the caterpillars and the later adult butterfly, taste bad.

 

White butterflies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the East Coast region

  • Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) – originally a European species
  • Checkered White (Pontia protodice)

 

The Marbles and Orangetips (tribe Euchoini)

This tribe includes only 2 species in the East Coast region and is found in barren habitats. These butterflies produce only one brood of offspring a year.

  • Falcate Orangetip (Anthochans midea)
  • Olympia Marble (Euchloe Olympia)

 


Orange Sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) Whites and Sulphurs (Pierids) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Sulphurs Butterflies Subfamily (Coliadinae)

There are 300 species worldwide; 37 in the United States and Canada; 19 in the East Coast region (Maine to Florida) including 5 rare strays from the tropics. The Sulphurs include the most numerous and conspicuous  butterflies. They are medium-sized mostly yellow, orange or cream with black wing edges and other dark markings.

 

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) butterfly. Whites and Sulphur butterfly family. Photo by By Clinton & Charles Robertson Wikimedia Commons – 8/4/15

Hostplants for the Sulphur butterfly caterpillars

The Sulphur butterflies differ from White butterflies by their wing coloring and their diet. Sulphurs caterpillars eat legumes instead of the crucifers of the Whites. The legumes include beans, peas, clover, locust, and acacia trees. The nutritious legumes promote rapid growth, which comes in handy for maturing quickly, mating and producing many broods during the warm seasons. Sulphur foodplants do not contain the foul-tasting chemicals of the White butterflies’ legume family hostplants.

 Sulphurs have distinct wing-vein patterns and shorter antennae than Whites. This group was once called “red horns” for the color of their antennae, which is pinkish. But, you would have to have a butterfly (dead or alive), under a microscope or in your hand to see this trait. In Sulphurs it is the wings of the males that reflect ultraviolet light instead of the females as in White butterflies. Sulphurs that live in the northern part of their ranges have dark scales on their basal (hind) wings as extra heat-absorbing properties to allow the butterfly to fly during the cooler periods of the day or season. The Sulphur butterflies bask with wings folded closed and held above its body. The folded wings allow the dark spots on the hind (back) wings to absorb solar heat.

 

The Sulphurs have several subgroups: Common, Giant, Small and Dainty.

Sulphurs in the Philadelphia Area  Along with Subgroups

Common Sulphurs (Colias/Zerene)

  • Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
  • Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice)

Clouded and Orange Sulphurs often mate and produce hybridized offspring.

 

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) Butterfly. White and Sulphur butterfly family. [photo by Paul B. Toman. on Wikimedia]
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) Butterfly. White and Sulphur butterfly family. [photo by Paul B. Toman. on Wikimedia]
Giant Sulphurs (Aphrissa/Phoebis)

  • Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)

Small Sulphurs (Eurema/etc.)

  • Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe)
  • Little Yellow (Eurema lisa)

Dainty Sulphurs (Nathalis)

  • None in Philadelphia area

Please feel free to comment, share a resource or ask and question in the comments below.
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More Information

Facts about Butterflies and Moths

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly

The Adult Butterfly

Migrating Monarch at Cape May State Park

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml

References

Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t  find  book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America

<

p id=”title” class=”a-size-large a-spacing-none”>Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)
Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)

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Skipper Butterfly Family

Zabulon Skipper Butterfly (Poanes zabulon) Skipper (Grass Skipper Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Zabulon Skipper Butterfly (Poanes zabulon) Skipper (Grass Skipper Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Zabulon Skipper Butterfly (Poanes zabulon) Skipper (Grass Skipper Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Skippers belong to the butterfly family named Hesperiidae. These furry, stocky little butterflies look like a cross between a butterfly and a moth. Skippers are the most numerous butterfly visitors to our gardens and backyards. The name Skipper comes from their rapid, skipping flight style.

To some naturalists, the brown, gray, and orange hairy little butterflies aren’t very exciting.  Skippers aren’t very well-studied. The life history and hostplants of skippers is a good area for amateur naturalists and citizen scientists to study.

The Skippers are also called by other names.  They are called, “branded skippers” for the males’ banded stigma (a black scent-producing patch that looks like a brand on the upper side of the forewing). They are also called the “smaller skippers” because they are small. Each of these names relates to the butterflies’ appearance. Skippers are called, “grass skipper” because of their ecological lifestyle feeding on grass.

There are about 3600 species of Skippers worldwide; 280 in North America north of Mexico, about 85 species live in the East Coast region. Of the 280 species found north of Mexico, may occur only along the southern Texas border. Skippers are found in many parts of the world except the coldest. Only a few Skipper species live in Northern Canada.

 

Common Branded Skipper (Hesperia comma) on garden phlox. By Miles Frank, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Common Branded Skipper (Hesperia comma) on garden phlox. By Miles Frank, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

How Skippers Differ from other Butterflies

The Skipper butterfly family differs from other butterflies by their proportionally larger bodies, smaller wings, and different body details. Skippers lack eyespots (ocelli) that some other species of butterflies have on their wings. An example of an eyespot would be the large circular spots on the wings of a Buckeye butterfly.

Adult Appearance of Skippers

Skippers are furry with big friendly eyes. They range in color from browns, grays, to oranges. They are subtle and unassuming. Some species have an iridescent quality to their coloring. They look somewhat like moths.

These small to medium-sized butterflies have wingspans of ½ – 2 ½” (13 -64 mm) across. The head is as wide or wider than the thorax or abdomen. The eyes and antennae are set wide apart on the head. The antennae are curved or hooked on the ends. Most Skipper species have a long proboscis. The Adults feed on plant nectar, bird-droppings, sometimes mud, and other substances. Butterflies don’t have teeth but sip liquid. The adults have six full-functioning legs, unlike some other butterfly species. Skippers are able to walk using all six of their legs.

Skipper Mating Rituals

Male skippers generally find mates by perching, but some in the east Coat region will roam an area looking for a female.  The roaming species include the Least and European Skippers. If you see a mating pair of skippers, the female will carry the couple away to safety if they are disturbed.

 

Skipper Flight Style

Skippers are fast fliers and zoom by in a blur. The ‘skipper’ name comes from their rapid, erratic, skipping flight pattern. Their strong body and short wings allow them to take off fast and maneuver well. Their short wings aren’t designed for gliding or long-distance flight. Few Skipper species migrate.

Skipper Egg Appearance

Skipper eggs are relatively large but still small to our eyes.  The eggs measure less than 1/256” (0.1 mm) wide. The eggs are laid singly or in small clusters on host plants.

Silver-Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) Spread-wing Skipper and Skipper (Hesperiidae) family. Photo by Donna L. Long. The caterpillar’s narrow neck is clearly visible.

Caterpillar Appearance and Behavior

The caterpillars (larva) are green, cigar-shaped with a narrow neck and a big head. The caterpillar body is tapered but to my eye looks like a sack of green jelly. The caterpillar’s most notable feature is the narrow neck. Each instar or growth stage of Skipper caterpillars build leaf nests held together with silk. The skipper caterpillar makes the silk it needs. Early instars of grass-feeding skippers, roll a leaf to form a cylinder held together with silk. Or they cut out a piece of a leaf and fold the piece over and secure the flap down with silk. The growing caterpillar builds new shelters as it outgrows the old one. The caterpillar rests in its’ leaf nest during the day and comes out at night to feed.

Here is a bit of weirdness – Skipper caterpillars have a flap – a toothed, fan-shaped plate above the anus – called an “anal comb”. The anal comb is triggered by muscles around the anus which the caterpillar uses to fling its’ excrement away from its’ leaf nest. Blood pressure in the tissue surrounding the flap builds until enough pressure can fling the excrement up to 38 body lengths (153 cm) away. This is a handy mechanism to have, for the presence of waste pellets is a good way to find caterpillars. I have used spotting waste pellets as a technique to find caterpillars of those unfortunate butterfly species whose caterpillars do not have an anal flap.

Skipper Host Plants

Skippers eat a variety of host plants. Different species eat deciduous plant leaves and grass leaves. Few of the plants that Skippers eat are toxic. So, if you or another animal eats a Skipper presumably it won’t be toxic. Being toxic and bad-tasting is a defense some butterflies like the Milkweed butterflies as a deterrent to predators who may decide to eat the caterpillar or adult butterfly. That doesn’t mean Skippers taste good. I have yet to read of someone tasting a Skipper and telling how it tasted.

 

The Skipper Chrysalis

The streamlined chrysalis of Skippers is often covered with a white powered power or bloom. The white powdery substance keeps the chrysalis dry.

 

Overwintering: Where Skippers Spend the Winter

Few skippers migrate. Their bodies and wings are designed for long-distance flight. Skippers ride out the cold winter in a chrysalis.

 

The Subfamilies of Skipper Butterflies

There are three North American subfamilies of Skippers.

 

wing of Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus Clarus) Skipper (Pyrginae) Butterfly Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Spread-wing Skippers: Pyrginae subfamily

These skippers are called “spread-wing” because they tend to rest with wings partially or fully spread open. About 1/3 of all Skippers belong to this subfamily and typically are found in the southwestern United States. There are 26 spread-wing species that live in the East Coast region. These skippers are usually brown or blackish-brown with subtle mottled patterns. The abdomen is short and doesn’t reach past the edge of the hindwing. The adult butterfly antenna is club-shaped with an angled tip. The caterpillar hostplants include peas, mallows and oaks.

 

Some common Spread-wing Skipper species of the Mid-Atlantic Region include:

  • Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
  • Hoary Edge (Achalarus lyciades)
  • Northern Cloudywing (Thorybes pylades)
  • Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus)
  • Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo)
  • Juvenal’s Duskywing (Eryniis juvenalis)
  • Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae)
  • Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus Catullus)
  • Common Sootywing (Phollisora Catullus)

 

 

Unknown Skipper butterfly probably Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). Grass Skipper Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Grass Skippers: Hesperiinae subfamily

There are about 3,000 species of Grass Skippers in the world, 140 in North America and 60 in the East Coast region. This subfamily is called “grass skippers” because they feed on grasses. This group is also called, “branded skippers” for the males banded stigma (a black scent-producing patch that looks like a brand on the upper side of the forewing), and the “smaller skippers” because they are small. Each of these names relates to the butterflies’ appearance. The “grass skipper” name relates to their ecological lifestyle as grass feeders.

Grass Skippers are also called, “folded-wing” skippers. These skippers bask or perch with their forewings (front wings) folded up at 45° angle and the hind wings (back wings) held flat. They look like little fighter planes. Like other skippers, the Grass Skippers are fast and straight fliers.

Those butterflies we call Grass Skippers, have wings of brown or golden-orange with brown margins. The outer veins of their wings have distinct patterns. Grass Skippers have an exceptionally long proboscis, the tube-shaped tongue butterflies use to sip nectar or other liquids since they lack teeth. Most Grass Skipper males perch (and wait until they spot a female) when searching for a mate. Some Grass Skippers roam an area looking for mates. The roaming species include the Least and European Skippers.

Grass Skipper caterpillars are light green and often have distinctive patterns on their bodies. Grass Skipper caterpillars are not widely studied perhaps because they are small, feed mostly are night and it is difficult to find a caterpillar on thousands if not millions of grass stems in a meadow or field. These caterpillars do construct nests by folding over hostplant leaves and binding the leaves together with silk from its body. Of course, observing and recording information about grass skippers could be a project for amateur naturalists with time and determination.

Delaware Skipper Butterfly (Anatrytone_logan). Skipper Butterfly Family. By Marvin Smith via Wikimedia Commons.
Delaware Skipper Butterfly (Anatrytone_logan). Skipper Butterfly Family. By Marvin Smith via Wikimedia Commons.

Some Common Grass Skipper Species in the Mid-Atlantic region:

  • Arctic Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon)
  • European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
  • Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)
  • Indian Skipper (Hesperia sassacus)
  • Sachem (Atalopedes carrpestris)
  • Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius)
  • Long Dash (Polites nystic)
  • Crossline Skipper (Polites Themistocles)
  • Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites Themistocles)
  • Northern Broken Dash ( Wallengrenia egeremet)
  • Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan)
  • Zabulon Skipper (Poanes zabulon)
  • Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)

 

Giant Skippers: Megthymidae subfamily

There are only twenty species in this small subfamily. These Giant Skippers are only found in the Americas with most in the American Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. These Skippers are called “giant skippers” because they are large, heavy and muscular. Their heads are narrower than the rest of their bodies. The thorax of these butterflies is flat and wide and tapers to a narrow blunt end. The antennae have clubbed ends without hooks. The adults are reported not to feed but some conflicting reports say they do feed.

The wings of Giant Skippers are usually black or brown with yellow and gold markings with interesting frosty-like coloring on the edge of the wings. The largest has a wingspan that exceeds 3’’ (76 mm). These Giant Skippers are very fast fliers have been clocked at over 60 mph (96 kph). Instead of watching this butterfly in flight you have to wait until it stops and perches to see it clearly.

While in their chrysalis, the caterpillars are able to move up and down perhaps to take advance of temperature changes. Giant Skipper caterpillars feed exclusively on yuccas and agaves as host plants.

Not much is known about the lifestyles of Giant skippers and presents an opportunity for amateur naturalists to study about them.

Common Giant Skippers Species in the Mid-Atlantic region

There aren’t any Giant Skipper species common to the Mid-Atlantic region. The two Giant Skipper species in the eastern part of North America are the Giant Yucca (Megathymus yuccae) which is found in eastern North Carolina south to Florida. The other species, Cofaqui Giant Skipper (Megathymus Cofaqui) is found in scattered areas of western North Carolina, South Carolina Georgia and Florida.

 

More Information

A Friendly European Butterfly

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly

The Adult Butterfly

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklists – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml

References

Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t find a book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)

Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)

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The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
Monarch butterfly on pink zinnia flower in my garden
Monarch butterfly on pink zinnia flower in my garden

There are over 18,000 species of butterflies in the world. Humans have created butterfly families to help us study and understand all the thousands of butterflies in the world. Humans have identified 717 species north of Mexico. There are 250 species identified in the East Coast region of North America (Maine to Florida). It is believed there aren’t any new species of butterflies to identify in the East Coast region of North America.

Butterflies are found throughout North America but not all species are in every region. It is easiest to focus on those species common to you area. This cuts down on the ones you need to know. My policy always is, “Start in your own backyard and work your way outward”.

If you want a good, reliable list of species in your local area contact chapters of the North American Butterfly Association, local nature centers and parks. The North American Butterfly Association has great regional lists of common local butterflies and the best nectar and host plants for several regions. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the free pdfs.

 

Red-spotted Purple butterfly
Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax). Photo by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia.

Benefits of Learning Butterfly Families

Learning butterfly families helps with identification of species in several ways. By learning the key characteristics of a butterfly family, you can spot an unfamiliar species that belongs to the group. If you can place an unknown butterfly in a family, you will have a good start in identifying and unknown species.

Even with the usefulness of classifying butterflies into families, I am leery of classification in general. Many times plants or animals are put in categories and given a name and that’s where knowledge about a species ends.

I find humans also do this by categorizing fellow humans, putting them in a category and thinking they know everything about a person by what group they are thought to belong.

This isn’t true of plants and animals anymore than it is true of humans. Naming or categorizing isn’t all there is to know about a plant, animal or human.

For butterflies, we still need to know the life cycles, behavior, hostplants, overwintering and ecological niches that they fill.  And this means we have to study live animals that are living freely in their native habitats and behaving normally.

This is a place for amateur naturalists and citizen scientists to make a contribution to our body of knowledge. Your backyard is a good place to start.

 

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Monarch butterfly with tattered wing.
Monarch butterfly with tattered wing. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Family Classifications

The butterfly families classifications are based on body structure, wing vein patterns, color, what they eat and how the butterfly sits, perches or flies. Learning size, color and flight patterns of the different groups is a good way to tell the families apart. Butterflies can be identified by impression, just like birds. Birders call this the “jizz” of a bird. The technique is  GISS – general impression, shape, and size.

The six families of butterflies include: Swallowtails, Whites and Sulphurs, Hairstreaks and Blues, Metalmarks, Nymphalids and the Skippers.

Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) Swallowtail (Papilionidae) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) Swallowtail (Papilionidae) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Swallowtails Family – Papilionidae

Swallowtails (Papilionidae) – there are between 460 and 490 species of swallowtails in the world. There are twenty-eight species in North American and twelve in the East Coast region. These butterflies vary greatly in their appearance. They range in size from a wingspan of 2 1/8 to 5 ½ “ (54 – 40 mm).

All the caterpillars of this family have an osmeterium, a forked, foul-smelling organ behind the head, which the caterpillar can raise when it feels threatened. The osmeteriums are orange, red or yellow. I watched a Black Swallowtail caterpillar with an orange osmeterium in my garden.

Swallowtails fall into four general groups.

  1. Black Swallowtails (Papilio spp.) are black with spots or broad bands of yellow. Black Swallowtail caterpillars usually feed on plants in the carrot family.
  2. Giant Swallowtails (Heralides spp.) are brown with yellow markings. Giant Swallowtail caterpillars feed on citrus plants.
  3. Tiger Swallowtails (Pterourus spp.) are generally yellow with black stripes. The host plants for Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars are mostly deciduous trees.
  4. Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus spp.) are blackish. The caterpillars eat plants whose roots are pungent and as a result the caterpillars are foul tasting, making them distasteful to predators.

Not all butterflies in the Swallowtail family fit into these groups. Other butterflies in the Swallowtail family such as Parnassians are very different looking than the Swallowtail species.

 

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) - female. Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family. Photo by Donna Long.
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) – female. Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family. Photo by Donna Long.

The Whites & Sulphurs Family – (Pieridae)

The Whites & Sulphurs (Pieridae) Family – 1000 species worldwide; 60 in the United States and Canada; twenty-seven species in East Coast region. The Sulphurs range in size from very small to large. These usually medium-sized butterflies have wingspans of 1 ¼ – 2” (32 -51 mm).

These butterflies are mostly in shades of white, yellow or yellowish-green. A few species have orange tips on their wings or greenish and yellow marbling on their wings. Whites and Sulphur butterflies may have different colorings in different seasons or between the sexes. The most common species in East are the Cabbage White and Orange Sulphur butterflies.

The caterpillars are often green, cylindrical and lacking remarkable color or markings like other caterpillars.

Whites—700 species worldwide; 22 in the U.S.; and 8 in the East Coast region. The White caterpillars feed on host plants in the mustard family.

Sulphurs–300 species worldwide; 37 species in North America and Canada; 19 in East Coast region. Sulphur caterpillars tend to feed on legumes.

 

Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) - Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.
Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) – Lycaenidae Family. Photo from Wikimedia Public Domain.

The Gossamer or Hairstreaks and Blues Family – Lycaenidae

The Hairstreaks and Blues Family – Gossamer-Wings (Lycaenidae) Family – One of the largest butterfly families in the world. There are an estimated 4000 to 6000 species in the world, with 140 north of Mexico; and about 46 in the East Coast region.

These are small to medium-sized butterflies with wingspans from 7/8 – 2’’ (22 – 51 mm). The butterflies display a wide range of colors in grays, blues, browns, oranges and some greens. Many of the caterpillars are green.

Many of the caterpillars are specialists and feed on specific hostplants, which can help in identifying a species. The Gossamer Wings is the family of caterpillars that are tended by ants. Ants tend nearly half of the Gossamer Wing caterpillars in the world. The caterpillars secrete a honey-like substance, which the ants eat. The ants protect their food source from predators who want to make a meal of the caterpillar.

There are four subgroups of the Gossamer Wings Butterflies.

  1. Harvesters – One specie in the East Coast region
  2. Coppers – Four species in the East Coast region. Coppers are copper in color.
  3. Hairstreaks – Thirty species in the East Coast region usually have “tails” on wings
  4. Blues – Thirteen to Seventeen species in the East Coast region. Usually blue.

 

Zygia metalmark (Lemonias zygia zygia), The Pantanal, Brazil. By Charlesjsharp

 

The Metalmarks Family – (Riodinidae)

The Metalmarks (Riodinidae) Family – There are about 100 species worldwide with 90% in the Americas and the Caribbean; 24 species in North America, 2 species occur in the East Coast region. The North American Metalmarks are small butterflies with wingspans of 5/8 – 2’’ (16 – 51mm) wide.

The North American Metalmarks are mostly shades of brown, gray, or rust. The name ‘metalmark’ comes from shiny metallic scales on their wings.

 

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) - Brushfoot Family (Nymphalids) Photo by Donna L. Long.
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) – Brushfoot Family (Nymphalids) Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

The Brushfoots Family – Nymphalids (Nymphalidae)

Nymphalids (Nymphalidae) Family- often called Brushfoots. There are over 5000 species worldwide; 200 in North America north of Mexico, 70 species in the East Coast region. The group gets its name from the reduced front legs of both the female and male butterflies of each species.

The caterpillars vary widely in appearance and feed on a wide variety of host plants.

This large, diverse family includes these major groups:

  1. Snouts – 1 species in East Coast region
  2. Heliconians – 2 species in East Coast region
  3. Fritillaries – 1 specie in East Coast region
  4. Crescents and Checkerspots – 10 species in East Coast region
  5. Typical Brushfoots – 16 species in the East Coast region
  6. Admirals and Relatives – 7 species in the East Coast region

 

European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola). Photo courtesy D. Gordon E. Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons
European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola). Photo courtesy D. Gordon E. Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons. Skipper Butterfly Family.

The Skippers Family (Hesperiidae)

The Skippers Family – There are about 3600 species of Skippers worldwide; 280 in North America north of Mexico, 60 species live in the East Coast region.

Skippers are my favorite butterflies. They are furry with big friendly eyes. They range in color from browns, grays, and oranges. They are subtle and unassuming. Skippers differ from other butterflies by their proportionally larger bodies, smaller wings and different body details. They are fast fliers and zoom by in a blur. I was lucky one day when a European Skipper landed on my chest and I was able to study it close up.

The caterpillars are green, cigar-shaped with a narrow neck and a big head. Most Skipper caterpillars build leaf nests held together with silk. The caterpillar rests in this leaf nest during the day and comes out at night to feed.

The six butterfly families categorizing 18,000 butterflies species is a tremendous help in learning to identify and understand butterflies’ role in their environments.

 

possibly Little Glassywing butterfly - Grass Skipper (Hesperiidae) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.
possibly Little Glassywing butterfly – Grass Skipper (Hesperiidae) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Butterfly Life: How Butterflies are Born, Live, and Support Earth’s Ecosystems
by Donna L. Long
In pdf, epub, and paperback, starting at $4.99 Buy Now
 

 

More Information on Butterflies

Facts about Butterflies and Moths

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly

The Adult Butterfly

Migrating Monarch at Cape May State Park

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Red-spotted Purple Butterfly in Tyler State Park, PA. MikeParker at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]
Red-spotted Purple Butterfly in Tyler State Park, PA. MikeParker at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

Butterfly-focused Websites

North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera–link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly Larva in my garden. (Papilio troilus)
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly Larva in my garden.
(Papilio troilus)

References: Research I Used

Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I could find  book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)

Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)