Identification of butterflies is easier than with other insects and there are fewer families than moths – only 6 butterfly families in the eastern US. Many butterfly species are very specific about their habitat and when they fly, which also makes identifying them a bit easier.
How many types of butterflies are in one area depends on the diversity and complexity of the landscape and the plants in it. The areas where the landscape changes from one habitat to another is where an even larger great diversity of butterflies can be found.
A couple of interesting behaviors are hilltopping and mudpuddling. Hilltopping is where male and unmated females congregate at the top of the highest hill in the area. It’s the equivalent of our singles’ bar scene! Mudpuddling is just as it sounds; butterflies cluster on the damp mud seeking salt as well as water.
Caterpillars of butterflies and moths are highly parasitized by flies and wasps who are attracted to them by the chemicals released from the injured plants they are munching. I have a photo of the remains of such a caterpillar.
Butterflies are like the canary in the coalmine. They are great barometers for environmental issues because they are more often observed and studied than other insect species. When one is endangered, it signals that many other species might be or already are threatened, too.
Habitat destruction is the main reason we are losing many of our invertebrates and vertebrates. It’s no different for butterflies. Butterflies require open areas; if these areas in our rural landscape are not maintained as open areas, they soon become filled with woods. Farming practices make other types of rural areas unfit for butterfly habitat and open spaces in urbanized areas are parking lots and manicured lawns which provide no nectar sources or host plants.
If you find an error, please let me know. Here’s a listing of references that I used for my info.
Danaidae (Milkweed Butterflies)
Danaus plexippus – Monarch
In 2000, it was discovered that about half of our monarch population comes from the cornbelt between Nebraska and Ohio. This can be determined by the genotypes of the milkweed eaten by the caterpillars.
These butterflies get their common name from their rapid, skipping type of flight. They also have hooked-antennae and mothlike bodies. Skipper larvae are quite distinctive and easy to identify. They have large heads and what appears to be a collar that defines their neck. There are about 300 species of skippers in North America; many are quite similar are difficult to identify.
Eggs are laid singly on the food plant. Once the larvae hatch, they will form shelters by tying the leaves and grasses together in a tube. Many species of skippers feed only a night.
Epargyreus clarus – Silver-spotted Skipper
Thymelicus lineola – European Skipper
Lycaenidae (Blues, Coppers, Hairstreaks, Harvesters, and Metalmarks)
Lycanenidae are also called gossamer-winged butterflies. One way of identifying the male from the female by their front leg; the female as normal legs and the males are smaller.
Blues are some of the first insects seen in spring.
Most larvae are plant feeders with the early instar feeding internally on the plants. They will eat a wide variety of plants but legumes in the Fabaceae family are their favorites. The larvae are generally associated with ants because they can produce a honeydew. When honeydew production is low or the larvae is overworked, they can evert a pair of tentacles that seem to agitate the ants, diverting their attention from the honey gland. There are some lycaenids that do not have a honey gland and their tentacles are permanently everted; these are not associated with ants.
Celastrina neglecta – “Summer” Spring Azure
Everes comyntas – Eastern Tailed-Blue
Satyrium caryaevorum – Hickory Hairstreak
Satyrium favonius – Oak Hairstreak (also Fixsenia favonius)
Nymphalidae (Brushfooted Butterflies)
The front legs are reduced in both sexes. This is a diverse group of butterflies in all ways: morphologically, biologically, and ecologically.
Their eggs are barrel-shaped or conical and laid in clusters that can number up to the hundreds. The larvae tend to flock together in their early instars; they may also spin a silken web binding several leaves together.
Boloria bellona – Meadow Fritillary
Cercyonis pegala – Common Wood-Nymph – Hodges #4587
Chlosyne nycteis – Silvery checkerspot
Limenitis archippus – Viceroy
Limenitis arthemis astyanax – Red-spotted Purple
Megisto cymela – Little Wood Satyr
Nymphalis antiopa – Mourning Cloak – Hodges #4432
Phyciodes tharos – Pearl Crescent
Speyeria Cybele – Great Spangled Fritillary
Vanessa atalanta – Red Admiral
These butterflies are the largest insects. Swallowtails overwinter as pupa and when they emerge they lay their eggs on the tips of young host plant leaves. Eggs are usually laid singly but there are a few species that lay them in clusters. As a defense mechanism so birds don’t eat them, many of the caterpillars look like bird droppings. They also can emit a foul odor and startle predators with a brightly colored defense display that looks like the forked tongue of a snake.
Papilio cresphontes – Giant Swallowtail
Papilio glaucus – Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Papilio polyxenes – Black Swallowtail – Hodges #4159
Pieridae (Whites, Sulphurs, Yellows)
The butterflies in this family have spindle-shaped, ribbed eggs. This is unusual for other butterflies. They will lay them single on the host plant but there are a few, very few, that will cluster their eggs. When it’s time to pupate, they secre themselves with a silk thread to their host plant.
Colias eurytheme – Orange Sulphur
Colias philodice – Clouded Sulphur
Pieris rapae – Cabbage White – Hodges #4197