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