Learn the 6 Butterfly Families
Learn the 6 Butterfly Families
- 1 Learn the 6 Butterfly Families
- 2 Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)
- 3 Brush-Footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)
- 4 Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae)
- 5 Types of Butterflies with Identification Guide to Butterfly Species (Pictures)
- 6 What do Butterflies Symbolize?
- 7 How to Identify a Butterfly
- 8 Main Families of Butterflies
- 9 Types of Butterflies With Pictures and Names
- 10 Monarch Butterfly
- 11 Red Admiral Butterfly
- 12 Black Swallowtail Butterfly
- 13 Giant Swallowtail
- 14 Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly
- 15 Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
- 16 Pipevine Butterfly
- 17 Orange Sulphur Butterfly
- 18 Zebra Longwing Butterfly
- 19 Northern Pearly-Eye Butterfly
- 20 California Sister Butterfly
- 21 Milbert’s Tortoiseshell Butterfly
- 22 The Buckeye Butterfly
- 23 Question Mark Butterfly
- 24 Painted Lady Butterfly
- 25 Glasswing Butterfly
- 26 Cabbage White
- 27 Great Spangled Fritillary
Even people who dislike bugs can warm up to butterflies. Sometimes called flying flowers, butterflies come in all colors of the rainbow. Whether you’ve created a butterfly habitat to attract them or just encounter them during your outdoor activities, you’ve probably wanted to know the name of the butterflies you’ve observed.
Identifying butterflies begins with learning the six butterfly families. The first five families—swallowtails, brush-foots, whites and sulphurs, gossamer-wings, and metalmarks—are called the true butterflies. The last group, the skippers, is sometimes considered separately.
Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)
xulescu_g / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
When someone asks me how to learn to identify butterflies, I always recommend starting with the swallowtails. You’re probably already familiar with some of the more common swallowtails, like the black swallowtail or perhaps one of the tiger swallowtails.
The common name «swallowtail» refers to the tail-like appendages on the hindwings of many species in this family. Should you see a medium to large butterfly with these tails on its wings, you are almost certainly looking at a swallowtail of some kind. Keep in mind that a butterfly without these tails could still be a swallowtail, as not all members of the family Papilionidae have this feature.
Swallowtails also boast wing colors and patterns that make species identification fairly easy. Though about 600 Papilionidae species live worldwide, less than 40 inhabit North America.
Brush-Footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)
Dean Morley / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0
The brush-footed butterflies comprise the largest family of butterflies, with some 6,000 species described worldwide. Just over 200 species of brush-footed butterflies occur in North America.
Many members of this family appear to have just two pairs of legs. Take a closer look, however, and you will see the first pair is there, but reduced in size. Brush-foots use these small legs to taste their food.
Many of our most common butterflies belong to this group: monarchs and other milkweed butterflies, crescents, checkerspots, peacocks, commas, longwings, admirals, emperors, satyrs, morphos, and others.
Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae)
S. Rae / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Although you might be unfamiliar with their names, you’ve probably seen some whites and sulphurs in your backyard. Most species in the Pieridae family have pale white or yellow wings with markings in black or orange. They’re small to medium butterflies. Whites and sulphurs have three pairs of walking legs, unlike the brush-foots with their shortened front legs.
Worldwide, whites and sulphurs are abundant, with as many as 1,100 species described. In North America, the family checklist includes about 75 species.
Most whites and sulphurs have limited ranges, living only where legumes or cruciferous plants grow. The cabbage white is much more widespread, and probably the most familiar member of the group.
Types of Butterflies with Identification Guide to Butterfly Species (Pictures)
Butterflies are one of the most graceful and beautiful types of flying insects you will find in your garden. All types of butterflies are beneficial insects because they pollinate flowers and feed on common garden pests. Most people are familiar with the monarch butterfly. However, there are some 18,500 species of butterflies in the world that come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. From the many thousands of butterfly species in the world, about 700 are native to North America.
The length of time butterflies live depends on their species and activity. Some butterfly species can live for many months and migrate huge distances. Other types of butterflies may only live for a few weeks.
In this article, you will learn how to identify the many types of butterflies that are commonly found in woodlands and summer gardens.
What do Butterflies Symbolize?
Butterflies fluttering around gardens are synonymous with warm summer days. However, some people attach special symbolism or meaning to butterflies.
For example, in Asian cultures, butterflies have come to mean long life or love. In Christianity, the change of the caterpillar into a butterfly symbolizes the resurrection when the caterpillar “dies” and the butterfly is “reborn” in a different body.
In some cultures, black butterflies are viewed as an omen of bad news, having a red butterfly fluttering around you can mean good news, or white butterflies can mean good luck.
How to Identify a Butterfly
Butterflies are a type of invertebrate insect with 4 wings that are usually brightly colored. These animal types belong to the class Insecta in the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths both belong to this order). Butterflies are grouped into 6 families, and moths are in the family Hedylidae.
Like all other insects, butterflies have six legs and three main body parts: head, thorax (chest or mid section) and abdomen (tail end). Butterflies also have two long antennae on their heads and they also have an exoskeleton.
All butterflies start life as creeping caterpillars before metamorphosis. In fact most types of caterpillars bear no resemblance to the beautiful insects they become. For example, the famous orange and black monarch butterfly is a long green caterpillar with black and yellow stripes.
Although some types of caterpillars sting, butterflies are completely harmless and don’t bite or sting people. This means that it’s fine to gently handle butterflies to identify them without fear of being stung.
Usually, male butterflies are identified by their slender bodies and they may have different wing markings. Female butterflies tend to have a larger rounded abdomen in comparison to male butterflies. Also, wing markings of male and female butterflies may be different. For example, male monarchs have a black dot near the base of each of their hind wings whereas the females don’t.
Male and female monarch butterfly identification
Most butterflies in North America and Europe are medium-sized insects. The largest species of butterfly is the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing with a wingspan of nearly 10” (25 cm). The smallest butterfly is the Western Pygmy blue from Africa which just measures 0.5” (1.3 cm) across.
Identification of moths vs. butterflies
It is generally easy to tell the difference between moths and butterflies. Of course, some moths are also very colorful but they have different characteristics. For example, moths generally feed at night rather than in the day time. Also, butterflies rest with their wings in the closed position and moths generally keep their wings open when resting. Also Butterflies have thin and long antennae, whereas moths have feathery and shorter antennae.
Most butterflies have thin slender antennae while moths often have feathery shorter antennae
Main Families of Butterflies
All butterfly species are classified by the family they belong to. Butterflies in some groups have common identifying features. The main families of butterflies are as follows:
The Nymphalidae family has around 6,000 species of butterflies and include monarchs, admirals, emperors, and tortoiseshells.
Butterflies in the Lycaenidae family contain small species of brightly-colored butterflies and there are also around 6,000 different species.
Hesperiidae, or skippers, are a family of small butterflies that often have antennae pointing backward.
Papilionidae butterflies are identified by wings that seem to have small tails on them.
Pieridae is a family of butterflies from Africa that contains about 1,100 species.
Riodinidae is a group of butterflies with interesting metallic colors on their wings. They are also called metalmark butterflies.
Types of Butterflies With Pictures and Names
Let’s look in more detail at some of the most common butterflies you are likely to see flying around your garden during warm sunny days.
The monarch is a popular butterfly with black and orange wings and white spots
The most iconic butterfly is the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with its orange wings, black veins, and white markings. They are also called ‘common tiger’ butterflies, ‘the wanderer,’ and ‘milkweed butterflies.’ Monarchs have a wingspan of 3.5” to 4” (9 – 10 cm) and they rest with their wings closed.
Monarchs are native to North America and certain parts of Central and South America. These orange and black butterflies are also found in Australia, North Africa, and islands in the Pacific Ocean. Monarchs are also famous for migrating thousands of miles.
Red Admiral Butterfly
The red admiral is a type of medium-sized butterfly with black and orange wings and white spots
The red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) has striking black or brown wings with vivid orange/red and white markings. This is somewhat smaller than the elegant monarchs, and they have a smaller wingspan of 2” (5 cm).
Red admirals are commonly found in woodlands in North American and Europe. You will usually find these butterflies resting on stinging nettles and feeding on the appropriately named butterfly bush (Buddleia).
Black Swallowtail Butterfly
The black swallowtail is a large beautiful butterfly with black and yellow wings, and red and blue markings
Some of the largest species of butterflies in North America are from the genus Papilio. The black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) is an especially striking butterfly in the family Papilionidae. Its wings are black with yellow markings or dots on the hind wings. There are also beautiful blue and red markings on the base of its hind wings.
As with most butterflies from this family, there are also tails on its hind wings.
Common names for the black swallowtail include ‘parsnip swallowtail’ and ‘American Swallowtail.’
The large sized wings of the swallowtail butterfly are black with yellow bands and small red dot
As its name implies, the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is the largest in the family Papilionidae and it is also the largest species in North America. Male giant swallowtails have an average wingspan of up to 5.8” (15 cm). Their striking black and yellow appearance look stunning against green foliage in summer gardens.
Like all butterflies in the genus Papilio, the giant swallowtail has tails on its hind wings. These give the butterfly wings a pointed appearance. There is a thick yellow stripe across its forewings and yellow marking along the edges of its hind wings. One of the identifying features of the giant swallowtail is its red and blue markings on towards the center and base of its hind wings.
Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly
Limenitis arthemis consists of two main groups: white admirals (left) and red-spotted purples (right) that mimic the poisonous pipevine swallowtail butterfly
The red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) is an interesting butterfly as it has developed to mimic the appearance of other butterflies. This butterfly in the family Nymphalidae, which also includes the ‘white admiral.’
Although named a ‘red-spotted’ butterfly, these beautiful flying creatures can have black, blue, or red wings. The group of white admirals has a white band on the underside and topside of the wings. The other group of this species, the red-spotted purples, don’t have these markings.
It is difficult to describe exactly this type of butterfly as there are many hybrids in this species.
Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
Male tiger swallowtails have black and yellow wings while females also have blue markings on the hind wings
Another of the beautiful species of butterfly from the family Papilionidae is the tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). This tailed butterfly has yellow and black patterns with “tiger” stripes on the upper-side of its forewings. In the summer and fall, you can often find tiger swallowtails on asters and sweet peas.
One way to tell the difference between male and female tiger swallowtails is their distinctive wing markings. The female species has blue markings on the lower part to the hind wings whereas the males have a black band on their wing edges.
The beautiful Pipevine butterfly has black and blue wings with orange spots under its wings
One of the most striking butterflies you will come across is the beautiful pipevine butterfly (Battus philenor). This swallowtail has black wings with iridescent blue markings on its hind wings. You will also notice interesting orange spots with black outlines between the veins underside the wings.
Pipevine swallowtails are generally found in forest biomes in North and Central America. Like many butterflies in the Papilionidae family, pipevines are quite large. Their black and blue wings have a wingspan of between 2.8” and 5.1” (7 – 13 cm).
Orange Sulphur Butterfly
The Orange Sulphur butterfly has orange and brown wings (left) and yellow colored wings on the underside (right)
From the family Pieridae, the orange sulphur butterfly is found in North America, Canada, and Mexico. This species of butterfly from the genus Colias is closely related to clouded yellows and other clouded sulphur butterflies.
The orange sulphur butterfly can be identified by its orange rounded wings and brown edging along the edges of the forewings and hind wings. You will also notice a single black or brown dot on each of the forewings and an orange dot on the hind wings. In some cultures, if you have an orange butterfly fluttering around you it can symbolize joy, passion, or a reminder to be positive.
Clouded sulphur butterflies are similar, but have pale creamy colored wings.
Zebra Longwing Butterfly
The zebra longwing butterfly has black and white striped wings with white dots
The common name of the Heliconius charithonia is zebra longwing butterfly due to its black and white striped wing patterns. These beautiful butterflies from the family Nymphalidae are generally found in Texas, Florida and South and Central America.
The zebra longwings have a wingspan of 2.7” to 4” (7 – 10 cm). The wings are black with a white band running laterally and a few diagonal ones on the wings. Looking up close at pictures of the butterflies, you will notice that some of the stripes can be yellow. There is also a row of white dots on the base of the black hind wings.
Northern Pearly-Eye Butterfly
The Northern pearly-eye is a small-medium sized butterfly with wingspan of 1.7” to 2.6” (4.3–6.7 cm)
Northern pearly-eye butterflies (Enodia anthedon) are pretty butterflies that inhabit the forests of North America. The identifying feature of this small butterfly species is the eye-like markings on the light brown ventral (underside) wings. The dorsal (upperside) wings are a brown-gray color with a row of black dots along the edges.
Despite its pretty appearance, northern pearly-eyes like to feed on dung, fungi, and roadkill. In forests, you will often find them on birch, poplar, and willow trees.
California Sister Butterfly
The California sister butterfly has black wings with white bands and orange markings
Another of the types of black butterflies is the California sister butterfly (Adelpha californica). These large butterflies of the family Nymphalidae are fast flyers and have a wingspan of up to 4” (10 cm). As its name suggests, this elegant butterfly species is found in California and the western coast of the U.S.
To identify the California sister butterfly, look for its orange patches on the tips of the forewings. There is also a white diagonal band on the wings. These markings are repeated on the underside of the wings. You will also notice that the dorsal wings may have orange, white, blue, and brown coloring.
Milbert’s Tortoiseshell Butterfly
Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterflies are commonly found in wet and moist areas
Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti) is also called the fire-rim tortoiseshell and is a single species in the genus Aglais belonging to the family Nymphalidae. This small butterfly species is often seen darting through woodlands.
Looking at the Milbert’s tortoiseshell, you will notice identifying marks such as orange and cream-colored bands along the wing edges. The dorsal wings are more striking due to the contrast of dusty-orange on black. The ventral wings are a duller, more brown-like color.
The Buckeye Butterfly
One of the most beautiful butterflies is the buckeye butterfly with its colorful eye-like markings
One of the most delightful butterflies in North America is the buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia). The brown wings have large eye-like markings on them which help ward off predators. Other identification marks on its wings are patches of orange, white, and hints of blue colors. They have a wingspan of around 2” (5 cm).
On warm summer days, you will often see buckeyes on snapdragons, plantains, and other brightly-colored flowers. Interestingly, the buckeye butterflies prefer to feed on nectar from yellow flowers.
Question Mark Butterfly
The question mark butterfly gets its name due to the white mark on the underside of the hind wing
The question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) is often found fluttering in open spaces and in wooded areas. They have an interesting wing shape with pointed tips and an uneven edge. These are medium-sized butterflies that have a wingspan of between 1.8” and 3” (4.5 – 7.6 cm).
‘Question marks’ are classified as a type of orange butterfly. Their fiery-colored orange wings have black dotted markings and a thin white edge. The underside wings of these flying insects are a completely different color. These are brown and the pointed, jaggy wings that look like a dead leaf when the butterfly closes them. This provides excellent camouflage to protect it from predators.
Painted Lady Butterfly
The painted lady is a common butterfly and can be found in America, Asia, Africa and Europe
One of the most common butterflies in the world could be the gorgeous painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). The butterfly is also named the ‘cosmopolitan’ butterfly due to its widespread distribution.
In some ways, the painted lady is similar to the monarch with orange, black, and white markings. However, the veins on this butterfly’s wings are not as pronounced. The orange forewings have black, brown, and white patches at their tips. The hind wing markings are 2 or 3 rows of tiny black or brown dots.
When the painted lady closes its wings, it looks like a completely different species. The underside of the wings is a light-brown color with white markings with conspicuous eye-like dots. These features act both as camouflage as they look like bird droppings on a leaf and the eye marks scare off would-be predators.
The glasswing butterfly is easily identified by its transparent wings with orange line around the edges
One of the most unique butterflies in the world may be the glasswing butterfly (Greta oto). Identification of this butterfly species is easy with its 4 transparent wings with the only coloration around the edges. The butterfly also looks dainty and delicate due to its slender body.
Commonly found in warmer climates such as Texas, California, and South America, glasswings are a joy to observe. They are medium-sized insects with the largest species having wingspans of 2.4” (6 cm).
The cabbage white is a very popular and common butterfly in many gardens
One of the most well-known white butterflies is the cabbage white (Pieris rapae). Although native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia, cabbage butterflies are also found in North America and Australia. They are smaller than other types of butterflies as their wingspan can be as small as 1.3” (3 cm).
Identification of cabbage white butterflies is by their white-colored wings with black dots on them. To tell males and females apart, you can observe the black markings on the white wings. The males have only one black dot on each wing and the females have more.
You will often find cabbage whites feeding on asters. However, as green-colored caterpillars, cabbage white larvae can destroy cabbage crops by munching their way into the middle of the cabbage head.
Great Spangled Fritillary
The great spangled fritillary is a type of pretty black and orange butterfly
Bright orange wings help identify the great spangled fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele). The orange colors on the forewings and hind wings have an almost glowing appearance. The orange wings also have rows of black dots and dashes between the black veins. The center of the wings closer to the body are in darker shades of orange, giving this a truly spectacular look.
The name of this beautiful butterfly comes from the checkered black patterns on the orange wings.
The dorsal wings are just as spectacular. When the butterfly rests and folds its wings up, you will notice that the wings are light brown with irregular white markings. This is another camouflage mechanism to trick predators.