Observing Butterflies At Home and Far Away

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
Observing Butterflies: 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
We like observing butterflies because they capture our attention with the fluttering of color as they pass by us. The blues, greens, and bright yellows advertise their presence and call attention to their beauty. On these pages we will learn about observing, their life cycle, their families and how to attract them to our gardens and backyards. Once we learn what they need to live, we will know where to find them. And butterflying or butterfly watching can begin.

This page connects to pages on this blog and the internet for studying and observing butterflies. 

The Six Butterfly Families in North America

There are six butterflies families that occur over much of North America. These families are grouped by wing vein patterns, color and how the adult sits or perches. Each family has a general impression, size and shape. Deciding the family is the first step in identification.
Learning the most common butterflies will allow you to know species in most of North America.

  • The Six Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies – An Overview
  • The Swallowtail Family
  • The Whites and Sulphur Family
  • The Gossamer Wing or Hairstreaks and Blues Family
  • The Metalmarks Family
  • The Brushfoots Family
  • The Skippers Family 


Mission Blue butterfly egg (Icaricia icarioides missionensis). CourtesyPatrick Kobernus/FWS.gov

A Short Life Cycle

The butterfly goes through four stages in its life cycle. It is an insect that goes through a complete metamorphosis.
It completely changes from an egg to a larva, to a chrysalis to an adult.

The colorful flier is the adult and final form of the insect. It starts life as a tiny egg which hatches into an equally tiny larva (caterpillar). The caterpillar eats until it grows many times larger. Then the caterpillar goes thorough a miraculous and amazing transformation. This brightly colored worm-like creature, shields itself in a chrysalis, then liquefies its body parts and transforms its tissues into the amazing fluttering adult we love to see. But the life cycle is short. Some adults live a few days to a few weeks. Their main activities consist of sipping moisture, mating and laying eggs. Not, bad work if you can get it. The short life is a drawback though. 

Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly (The butterfly life cycle)

The Adult Butterfly



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

Where to Find Them

To find them, you need to go where the butterflies are. And to do that, you need to know what they are searching for. Spring is the time when adult butterflies first make their appearance. Spring butterflies are often those that hibernate over the winter. They need nectar or moisture to sip and place to hide from harsh weather or predators. Females need places to lay eggs. Adults like open areas full of nectar and host plants, not densely forested areas. 

Look for butterfly eggs on larva host plants and adult butterflies on nectar-rich plants. Adult butterflies can often be found on the ground (on sand or gravel) sipping water and minerals. 




Gray Hairstreak Butterfly (Strymon melinus). Gossamer-Wings (Lycaenidae). Ailanthus Webworm Atteva aurea) at bottom of photo. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Observing Butterflies in Your Garden 

You can trek far-afield to find and watch these captivating fliers or you can draw them to you. Attracting butterflies by gardening is a delightful and rewarding pastime. Simply, plant the top nectar plants, host plants and create the elements they need to thrive. You may want to plant hosts for the most common species in North America. Provide it and they will come.

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like


Studying and Observing

There is a certain knack to sitting quietly and observing. The colors you where can attract these insects in a good way or a bad way. Move slowly. Sudden movements often scare off nervously fluttering adults. And remember to look down and think small. Butterflies live on a smaller, lower level than humans.



A Lifetime of Fascination

Butterflies are fascinating. And with so many species, studying can easily become a lifelong pursuit. We have gone over some of the areas we need to know to successfully learn about them. We have touched on the importance of learning families, life cycles and what they need to live. And studying, observing, attracting and gardening can all go hand in hand. You don’t have to travel to distant places to study butterflies. Nature study can take place in your own backyard.

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist

Amateur Entomologists Society (London)

What is an Entomologist? 

Entomological Society of America (for amateur and professionals)

Entomological Foundation (for grammar school children)

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