Butterfly Questions and Answers

North American Butterfly Association

Butterfly Questions and Answers

Because of the number of questions asked of us, and our small volunteer staff, for the most part we cannot respond individually to your queries, but if a number of people pose the same question, we will post the answer on this page. If you don’t find the answer to your question below, please e-mail it to us at [email protected], remembering that for the most part we cannot respond individually.

What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?
Butterflies and moths are evolutionarily related group of insects, called lepidoptera, that share many characteristics, including having wings covered with scales. The word lepidoptera means scaly (lepido) winged (ptera). There are many families of moths and butterflies within the lepidoptera. Of these, we call 2 related super-families, the true butterflies (Papilionoidea) and the skippers (Hesperoidea) «butterflies.»
Many butterflies are very colorful and almost all butterflies are active exclusively during the day. In contrast, most moths are fairly drably colored and are active at night. But there are quite a few butterflies that are dull and quite a few moths that are brilliantly colored and fly during the daytime. A better way to distinguish moths and butterflies is to look at their antennas. Butterfly antennas are shaped somewhat like a golf club, with a long shaft that has a «club» at its end. The vast majority of moths have antennas that are either simple filaments, tapering to a point at their ends, or are very complicated structures with many cross filaments, looking somewhat like radar antennas.

How many kinds of butterflies are there?
There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States, and with about 275 species occurring regularly in Canada. Roughly 2000 species are found in Mexico.

How many kinds of butterflies can I find near where I live?
In most parts of the United States, you can find roughly 100 species of butterflies near your home. The number is higher in the Rio Grande Valley and some parts of the West, somewhat less in New England. As one goes northward into Canada the number decreases, while as one goes southward into Mexico the number greatly increases.

How long does a butterfly live?
An adult butterfly probably has an average life-span of approximately one month. In the wild, most butterflies lives are shorter than this because of the dangers provided by predators, disease, and large objects, such as automobiles. The smallest butterflies may live only a week or so, while a few butterflies, such as Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks and tropical heliconians, can live up to nine months.

What kind of binoculars should I use for butterflying?
The most important requirement of binoculars for butterflying is that they allow you to focus on objects (butterflies) that are close to you. With most binoculars, if an object is closer than 12 feet away, the binoculars cannot focus properly on the object and it will appear fuzzy. Since you can approach butterflies very closely, we strongly recommend that you use binoculars that focus sharply on objects that are under 6 feet away. Please Binoculars for Butterflying for more information on this topic.

What is the origin of the word «butterfly.»
No one really knows the origin of this word. It is possible that it arose from the butter-yellow color of common European butterflies called sulphurs.

Where do butterflies spend the night?
At night, or during inclement weather, most butterflies perch on the underside of a leaf, crawl deep between blades of grass or into a crevice in rocks, or find some other shelter, and sleep.

How do butterflies spend the winter?
In areas where temperatures drop below freezing during part of the winter, at least one stage in a butterfly species’ life cycle must be resistant to freezing if the species is resident. Most butterflies that live in cold climates spend the winter as caterpillars, while almost as many spend the winter as pupas. A few species, mainly tortoiseshells (Nymphalis) and anglewings (Polygonia), spend the winter as adults, hibernating in holes in trees, in crevices in man-made structures, or in other shelters. A very few species spend the winter as eggs.

Do butterfly boxes work?
Unfortunately, no. While so-called butterfly boxes can be attractive, and do little harm, studies have shown that butterflies do not use them in any way.

What do butterflies eat?
Most adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers through their tongues, which function much like straws. A minority of butterflies almost never visits flowers, instead gaining sustenance from tree sap, rotting animal matter, and other organic material.
Butterfly caterpillars almost all eat plant matter. Mainly the caterpillars eat leaves, but some species eat seeds and seed pods while others specialize on flowers. Most species will eat only a small group of related plant species — for example Pearl Crescent caterpillars will eat species of asters. Some species, such as Gray Hairstreaks, will eat a wide variety of plants and some will eat only a single plant species. Although they eat plants, very few butterfly caterpillars are agricultural pests and if caterpillars are destroying some of your garden plants, it is unlikely that they are butterflies (unless you planted those plants specifically to attract butterflies). The caterpillar of one North American butterfly,the Harvester, eats aphids.

Do butterflies migrate?
Yes. Many butterflies that spend the summer in temperate North America cannot survive northern winters. Each year, as the weather becomes warmer, butterflies from Mexico and the southern United States fly north to repopulate these regions. Species that move northward each year include Cloudless Sulphur, Little Yellow, Gulf Fritillary, Painted Lady, American Lady, Red Admiral, Common Buckeye, Long-tailed Skipper, Clouded Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Sachem, and Ocola Skipper. For most species these northward dispersals are gradual, but, in especially good years, one can see Painted Ladies, Cloudless Sulphurs or Clouded Skippers streaming northward along migratory routes.
For some species the reverse migration, south in the fall, is more obvious. Cloudless Sulphurs, Mourning Cloaks, Question Marks, and especially Queens and Monarchs can sometimes be found moving southward in groups of thousands. Exactly where all of these butterflies go is not known. Monarchs are the most well-known of migratory butterflies. But even here our knowledge is limited. We know that most of the Monarchs from west of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter along the California coast while those from central North America spend the winter in roosts in the mountains of central Mexico. But what about the Monarchs from the Atlantic seaboard? Although it seems that many of them also migrate to the same Mexican mountain overwintering sites, others may travel to, and through, Florida, perhaps flying on to undiscovered sites in the Caribbean and/or the Yucatan Peninsula. On the other hand, perhaps northern Monarchs that enter the peninsula don’t survive the winter and, for them, Florida is a dead end. Some Monarchs do seem to overwinter in Florida, but these may be largely members of resident, non-migratory, populations. At this point, we just don’t know.

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Where do butterflies lay their eggs?
Most butterflies lay their eggs on plants that will be eaten by the caterpillar, when it hatches. Some species lay their eggs on the tops of leafs, some on the bottom, some at the leaf axils, some on flowers, and some on stalks. Which species do which is not known in all cases. Watch butterflies carefully and you could make a real contribution to our knowledge.

What is wrong with releasing butterflies at weddings and other events?
This well-meaning but misguided practice spreads diseases to natural populations, inappropriately mixes genetically distinct populations of the same species, may disrupt migratory behavior of native butterflies, confuses scientific studies of butterfly migrations, and usually results in the untimely death of the butterflies released. Please see Butterflies at Weddings for more about this subject.

I bought my child a Painted Lady kit, now the butterfly has emerged but it is still freezing outside. What should I do?
The best thing to do at this point is to keep the butterfly inside in a small enclosure. Try feeding it from a sponge impregnated with sugar-water. But, the important thing to remember for the future is not to buy butterflies. Releasing commercially-raised butterflies into the environment is well-meaning, but misguided (see above), while keeping the wild butterfly in your home is not a satisfying experience for most people (not to mention the butterfly). Far better to take your child out to any natural area and search for wild butterflies and caterpillars, which are easily found in most areas.

Do butterflies have a sense of smell?
Yes, they have chemoreceptors at the ends of their antennas and on the bottoms of their «feet!»


Butterfly Look-Alikes: Monarch, Queen, Soldier and Viceroy

Most nature lovers can easily identify the Monarch butterfly, with its briliant orange color and dark lines.

The Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) is nearly identical to the Monarch. It has orange-brown wings with dark black veins. A black line across the hindwing distinguishes it from the Monarch.

The Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) is just slightly smaller than the Monarch. The Queen is an orange-brown color with white spots and black borders.

The Soldier butterfly (Danaus eresimus) is also slightly smaller than the Monarch. The Soldier is an orange-brown color with white spots and black borders. It also has darker veins than the similar Queen.

Looking at each individually and trying to make an identification can be tricky. On this page we include images of each individual species, as well as a side-by-side comparison chart of all four species.

Individual «Family» Photographs

Side-by-side comparison of Monarch Butterfly Look-Alikes: Queen, Viceroy and Soldier

Shown below is a spotting guide to butterflies that are similar in coloration and markings to the Monarch. Included are the Viceroy, Queen and Soldier . the «Royal Court of Butterflies» !

Is It a Monarch or Queen Caterpillar . or a Black Swallowtail?

The caterpillars of the Monarch, Queen, and Black Swallowtail all feature white, yellow and black markings. But which one are you seeing? Check the images below for the differences between the three caterpillars. Note that the Queen Butterfly caterpillar has three sets of fleshy filaments, one on each end, and one towards its middle .


Butterfly chervonets fiery (photo): lifestyle and related species

Building a Community of Responsible Butterfly Enthusiasts in Britain & Ireland

Festoons, Apollos & Swallowtails

Browns, Fritillaries & Aristocrats

Coppers, Hairstreaks & Blues

This new article by Peter Andrews documents the history of the Large Copper in Britain. In doing so, it provides unpublished information from the journals and correspondence of J.C. Dale and also provides an account of the discovery of the batavus subspecies in Holland and its introduction to Britain.

This video is the third in a series of episodes produced for UK Butterflies TV, each looking at the autecology of the different species of butterflies found within the British Isles. The series also aims to interview those individuals who have made significant contributions to the conservation of each British butterfly species, in an attempt to capture, for posterity, their stories told in their own words.

This presentation is the ‘extended edition’ of a presentation describing the Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies, which has been delivered at several events, and was due to be delivered several times more in 2020.

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This presentation was originally prepared for the UK Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting in March 2020, but which was cancelled due to the coronavirus. The presentation asserts that there is much we can do in terms of recording immature stages, and that this data can be used to ultimately inform conservation efforts.

From the publisher: This beautifully illustrated field guide covers caterpillars of the moth and butterfly species that are most likely to be encountered in the British Isles. The comprehensive introduction covers how to study caterpillars and provides a window into their diverse natural histories, while the species accounts cover status, field characters, similar species, habitat, foodplant and field notes, and are accompanied with up-to-date distribution maps. Click here to read the review.

From the publisher: This book presents a readable account of butterfly behaviour, based on field observations, great photographs and the latest research. The main focus is on courtship and mating — including perching, searching and territorial behaviour. There have been exciting discoveries in all of these fields in recent years, including: butterfly vision, wing patterns, wing colouration, mating strategies and female choice. Click here to read the review by Harry E. Clarke.

Vince Massimo’s latest study on the immature stages of the Painted Lady is now available here.

From the publisher: This book is a complete guide to the butterflies of the Villars-Gryon region in the Alpes Vaudoises of Switzerland. All species known to occur in the area are presented with full-colour photographs and descriptions, enabling even a beginner to identify every butterfly encountered. A visual index guides the reader to the relevant pages and a fully illustrated checklist extends the book’s coverage to the whole of Switzerland. Click here to read the review.

Congratulations to Mark Searle, overall winner in the 2019 UK Butterflies Annual Photography Competition! With a superb photo of a pair of Common Blues, Mark wins a signed copy of Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies which has been kindly donated by Nature Bureau. Click here to see all of the winning entries.

From the publisher: This concise guide is a companion to the ‘Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by the same expert authors, but is in a condensed form with artwork opposite the species descriptions and lay-flat binding for ease of use in the field. Featuring more than 1,700 superbly detailed colour artworks and covering nearly 900 species, this portable guide is an essential addition to every moth-lover’s field kit. Click here to read the review.

From the publisher: Around 25 million moth records from Butterfly Conservation’s National Moth Recording Scheme and Moths Ireland have been combined to produce this landmark publication — the first ever atlas of all macro-moths in Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The atlas includes accounts for 866 macro-moth species, each with a distribution map showing current and historical occurrences, trends, status, a phenology chart and colour image. Click here to read the review.

From the publisher: This new and expanded edition, the most complete guide to insects ever published, now has 544 pages and covers over 2300 species with updated maps & over 2900 colour photographs throughout, with fully comprehensive sections on all insect groups, including beetles (108 pages), flies (100 pages), ants, bees & wasps (86 pages). Click here to read the review.

From the publisher: With detailed descriptions and photos of the adult, egg, caterpillar and chrysalis of each species, this book provides unique insights into a hidden world, illustrated with over 1,300 high-quality colour photos that reveal the subtle beauty in something as small as a butterfly egg. Butterflies are infinitely fascinating. What may start as a simple hobby of photographing the adult insects can evolve into a deep interest in their immature stages, ecology and conservation and this book will help light your way. Click here to read the review by Michael Blencowe.

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Butterfly chervonets fiery (photo): lifestyle and related species

The Lifecycle of a Butterfly

The Lifecycle of a Butterfly

By: Aliyya Christiani

The Lifecycle of a Butterfly

Butterflies go through a life cycle. A butterfly has four stages in its life cycle. Each stage is different. Each stage also has a different goal. A butterfly becoming an adult is called metamorphosis. The life cycle process can take a month to year. It depends on the type of butterfly.

Stage 1: Eggs

In the first stage a girl butterfly lays eggs. A butterfly first starts out as an egg. A girl butterfly lays the eggs on a leaf. She lays the eggs really close together. The eggs are really small and round. About five days after the eggs are laid. A tiny worm-like creature will hatch from the egg.

Stage 2: Caterpillar (Larve)

The second stage is the caterpillar. A caterpillar is sometimes called larve. A caterpillar is a long creature. It looks like a worm. Most caterpillars have a cool pattern. This pattern has stripes or patches. The caterpillar is hungry once it has hatched. It starts to eat leaves and flowers. It eats these all the time. It first eats the leaf that it was born on. This is the eating and growing stage.

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A caterpillar grows really fast. This is because they eat a lot. A caterpillar is really small when it is born. It starts to grow fast. This is because it eats all the time. It grows so fast that it becomes too big for its skin. So the caterpillar has to shed its old skin. It then gets new skin. Caterpillars shed their skin four or more times while they are growing. A caterpillar shedding its outgrown skin is called molting.

Caterpillars do not stay in this stage very long. While they are in this stage, all they do is eat.

Stage 3: Chrysalis (Pupa)

Stage three is the chrysalis. This is when the caterpillar is done growing. The caterpillar makes a chrysalis. Another name for a chrysalis is a pupa. It is mostly brown or green. It is the same color as the things around it. Things like the trees, leaves, or branches. This is so that other animals cannot see it. This protects them. This keeps them from getting hurt.

This is the resting stage. It also is the changing stage. The caterpillar starts to changes. It starts to turn into a butterfly. It starts to look different. Its shape starts to change. It changes quickly. It then turns into a butterfly. All this happens in the chrysalis. This does not take a long time.

Stage 4: Butterly (Adult) (Imago)

In stage four, the chrysalis opens. Soon a butterfly comes out. A butterfly is sometimes called an imago. It is also called an adult. Butterflies are very colorful. When the butterfly first comes out its wings are damp. The wings are also soft. The wings are folded against its body. The butterfly is also very tired. So the butterfly rests.

Once the butterfly has rested, it will be ready to start flying. It will start to pump blood into its wings. This is to get them working and flapping. After it does this, it can now learn to fly. Butterflies cannot fly good at first. They need a lot of practice. It does not take long for them to learn. They learn fast. When it can fly, it will go look for food. The butterfly will also go look for a mate. It will soon find a mate. It will then lay eggs. The lifecycle will start all over again.


Butterflies go through a life cycle. There are four stages. The first stage is the eggs. This is where a girl butterfly lays eggs. She lays them on a leaf. The second stage is the caterpillar. This is where the eggs hatch. It takes about five days for the eggs to hatch. A caterpillar then comes out. At this stage, the caterpillar eats all the time. It also grows really fast. Once it is all the way grown, the third stage starts. This stage is the chrysalis. The caterpillar makes a chrysalis. The caterpillar is inside the chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, it starts to change. It soon changes into a butterfly. Once the caterpillar has changed into a butterfly, the fourth stage starts. This is also that last stage in the life cycle. The fourth stage is the butterfly. A butterfly comes out of the chrysalis. It can now learn to fly. It can also find a mate. When it finds a mate, it lays eggs. Then the lifecycle process starts all over again.

Different kinds of Butterflies

There are many different kinds of butterflies. Here are some different kinds:

Monarch: This is the most known butterfly in North America. This butterfly has orange and black wings. In the fall they go to Mexico.

Painted Lady: Also called the thistle butterfly. This butterfly is everywhere in North America. The wings are orange and brown. The tips of its wings have black and white spots.

Viceroy: This butterfly is the same color as a Monarch. But it is smaller than a monarch. This butterfly is everywhere in the United States.

Red-Spotted Purple: This type of butterfly has many different colors. The top of the wings are blue. There are small red and white dots on the tops of the wings. The bottoms of its wings are a red and brown color. It also has orange spots. This butterfly flies fast. It is hard to catch. They like to sit on rotting fruit. They also like to sit in gardens.

Buckeye: This butterfly is seen in the United States. It is also in some places in Mexico. This butterfly is brown and orange. It also has patterns on its wings. These patterns look like eyes. These are used to scare off predators. This scares off other animals because it does not look like a butterfly.

Zebra Longwing: This butterfly has black and white stripes. It also likes the warm weather. It lives in Mexico and the United States. These butterflies eat pollen. They also live longer than many other kinds of butterflies.

Fun Facts about Butterflies

Butterflies taste with their feet.

Butterflies do not have mouths.

Butterflies need sun to fly.

Butterflies fly during the day.

Butterflies can see some colors. They can see red, yellow, and green.

Butterflies cannot fly if they are too cold. They need to be warm to fly.

Butterflies have their skeleton on the outside of their body. This is to protect them. It keeps the water inside of their body. This is good because they do not dry out.

The wings of a butterfly are transparent. The wings of a butterfly have tiny scales. These give their wings color. This is why they do not look transparent to us.


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