Biodiversity in your Backyard: Butterflies

One of my favorite things about spring is the return of the butterflies. Some trees are starting to leaf and flower. You might see a few grasshoppers or small beetles, and then one sunny day, you see your first butterfly.

Butterflies, like most insects, are pollinators. Although they don’t have pollen sacs like many species of bee, butterflies are excellent pollinators. They use their proboscis to slurp up nectar from flowers, and pollen gets on their faces, which then gets transferred to the next flower they visit.

A butterfly transferring pollen between flowers. Photo Credit: MrClean on Flickr

My first butterfly of the year was a Spring Azure, warming their wings on a gravel path. Shortly after, I saw my first big butterfly of the year: a Cabbage White. As an entomologist and nature enthusiast, I think folks have a lot to learn about insects like butterflies.

In this blog, and in future blogs, I’d love to share what I know about the widespread biodiversity in the South. Don’t worry, I don’t want to talk about just bugs, but also birds and mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even plants and fungi. Biodiversity is literally the number of species in a given area. In this case, we’ll be talking about the biodiversity that you can find right in your backyard. Or front yard. Or neighbor’s yard!

Butterfly? Moth? What am I seeing?

Butterflies and moths share really cool ancestry, but the answer you’re looking for is this: All butterflies are moths. Not all moths are butterflies. That’s right, taxonomically, every butterfly, even the Monarch, is a moth. Butterflies are a special set of day-flying moths in just a few families that all share one characteristic: their antennae have a “club” on the end. In contrast, moth antennae are all different shapes (fringed, straight, narrow, clubbed, feathered, etc) and sizes (very small to longer than their bodies).

Gossamer-winged

A Spring Azure rests on a person’s fingertip. Photo credit: John Flannery

In your backyard, the most common little butterfly you’ll see is a Spring Azure, Celastrina ladon, a member of the Lycaenidae (or gossamer-winged) butterfly family. These butterflies are very small, often fly low to the ground, and are most active in the afternoon through dusk. Their wings flutter fast enough that you’re not really sure what color they are until they land on a flower to take some nectar. When their wings are folded up behind them, you’ll see white, but when their wings extend, you’ll see blue.

Azures like to lay their eggs on a few different species of woody shrubs. Dogwood trees are a common host, so you may see more of them if you’ve got dogwoods around. They’re strong flyers, too, so you might just see an Azure passing through your backyard on its way to your neighbor’s flowers.

You may also see another member of the gossamer-winged family: Eastern Tailed Blues beginning in the spring and going through the summer and fall, depending where you live. They are similarly colored, but have a neat little “tail” off their wings!

An Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly draws nectar from a flower. Photo credit: Sam Davis

Whites

A Cabbage White draws nectar from a thistle plant. Photo credit: Steve Byrne

The white butterflies you’ll see are most likely the Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae. These butterflies are among the first butterflies you’ll see in a year, and they prefer sunny fields, backyards, and “edge” habitats – where trees meet open space. They lay eggs on Brassica or mustard family plants. This includes your common garden vegetables: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower alongside wild mustard plants like “yellow rocket” and toothworts.

If you live in a heavily wooded area, you may also find West Virginia White butterflies, but these are a rare species and hard to distinguish in flight from cabbage whites. Unlike Cabbage White butterflies, West Virginia Whites live almost exclusively in forests and only lay their eggs on a couple of toothwort and rockcress species of plants. Although their name is “West Virginia” white, they can be found from Vermont and Wisconsin all the way South to Georgia. West Virginia Whites are considered an endangered species in a few regions, at risk of local extinction due to things like logging, climate change, and invasive species.

The West Virginia White is a rare, early springtime forest butterfly. Picture credit: Sam Davis

Swallowtails

The last springtime butterflies that I want to talk about are the swallowtails (Papilio species). These big, showy butterflies are easy to identify by sight. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a large, bright yellow butterfly that patrols open fields, roads, and even forests, and their range is in the South. If you live in the Northeast or Mid Atlantic, you may encounter the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) instead. If you live in the Appalachian mountains, you may encounter the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio appalachiensis), which is believed to be a hybrid species of the Eastern Tiger and Canadian Tiger Swallowtails. These three “species” (the jury’s still out on whether or not they’re all species!) are hard to distinguish in flight, so for most of us, calling it a “Tiger Swallowtail” will do nicely.

A Tiger Swallowtail drinks nectar from flowers. Photo credit: Kelly Schradin

Swallowtails are well known for “puddling” — congregating around mineral deposits, usually in puddles, on gravel roads, or in (ew!) carcasses or animal droppings. Many butterflies do this, but they’re not just hanging out! They use their proboscis to get hard-to-find minerals and salts. This helps with finding a mate and laying eggs.

A Swallowtail joins Juvenal’s Duskywings (brown) and a Zebra Swallowtail (white) in puddling. Photo credit: Sam Davis

And… Action!

Did you enjoy learning about these butterflies? If so, why not show us!

Share your favorite springtime butterfly picture and tag us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter!

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Check out the other blogs in our Backyard Biodiversity series!

6 Responses to “Biodiversity in your Backyard: Butterflies”

  1. Katherine Levine

    A question. I was walking today though not very flowery meadow. What appeared to be grasshoppers abounded. They “Hopped” as I walked up to them, but then seemed to turn in to a small brown spotted butterfly, The wings folded as they landed on the dirt path in front of me. Some hopped to the taller grasses on the side of the path. Can you tel me anything about these?

    Reply
    • Sam Davis

      Hi Katherine! Thanks for the comment. What you saw were probably skippers. These little butterflies are fast moving but can sometimes appear to leap or hop as they move from plant to plant. You can use something like ButterfliesAndMoths.orgButterfliesAndMoths.org to identify butterflies if you have a picture!

      Reply
  2. John Beal

    Sam, Thanks for this awesome blog! I saw my first ever Zebra Swallowtail a few days ago! And I had always wondered why I see Tiger Swallowtails down in the gravel. cheers! johnthebaker

    Reply
  3. Cheryl Williamson

    I loved this article. I am converting the back of my property to a “butterfly garden”. I have been planting and researching and am amazed at how quick I am attracting butterflies, bees and birds. I have mainly had monarchs but now I seem to be attracting zebra longwings(?). Hoping for more diversity but glad that I am getting takers. Loved your article.

    Reply
  4. Bill H.

    I would not say that all butterflies are moths. The two are distinct taxonomically, and also differ in the position of their wings when at rest. Hesperiidae are an intermediate form.

    Reply
    • Sam Davis

      Hi Bill, thanks for the comment! While historically, the phylogeny of Lepidoptera was up in the air, more recent theories indicate that butterflies are a monophyletic or paraphyletic clade within Lepidoptera, depending on the situation of skippers, surrounded on either side of the evolutionary tree with moth species. In this taxonomic sense, especially given that there are many more moth than butterfly species in the order, butterflies “are” moths.

      Hesperiidae, the skippers, are also considered butterflies based on their place in the species tree as of current research. Historically, they were placed in their own superfamily, but more recent taxonomical research has placed them in Papilionoidea, alongside the rest of traditional butterfly species.

      Although wing positioning may be a good indicator, it’s not a foolproof way of telling the two types of Lepidopterans from each other. Skippers in particular may be mistaken for moths because of their dull coloring, small size, and fast flight.

      Butterfly monophylegeny: https://phys.org/news/2014-06-dna-analysis-reveals-butterfly-moth.html
      Hesperiidae taxonomy: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3267136/

      Reply

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