Butterfly Families

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Photo courtesy Fotolia/Anton Gvozdikov
You’ll discover a fascinating world within your butterfly garden: Watch a female butterfly as she lays eggs on the undersides of leaves, and marvel at the development of tiny caterpillars within the eggs during the next few days.

Have you ever stopped in the midst of your garden chores to
watch a bright yellow swallowtail as it lands on a
coneflower? If you approach slowly, you may be surprised at
how close you can get to a feeding butterfly. With a hand
lens, gaze at its compound eye, its overlapping wing scales
and its long proboscis, uncoiled like a soda straw to sip
nectar. Keep that hand lens at the ready. You’ll
discover a fascinating world within your butterfly garden:
Watch a female butterfly as she lays eggs on the undersides
of leaves, and marvel at the development of tiny
caterpillars within the eggs during the next few days. Keep
an eye out for gobbling caterpillars pausing to shed their
too-tight skins, and jewellike chrysalides dangling from
branches as the insects inside transform into dazzling
adult butterflies.

Like all living organisms, butterflies are classified
within the Linnaean system. Thus, a painted lady (Vanessa
cardui) belongs in the kingdom Animalia, phylum Arthropoda,
class Insecta, order Lepidoptera, family Nymphalidae, genus
Vanessa and species cardui. Butterflies and moths make up
the order Lepidoptera, which means “scaly
wings.” There are nine times as many moths as
butterflies, a remarkable fact considering that scientists
have classified almost 20,000 species of butterflies
worldwide. Most inhabit the tropics; about 700 species can
be found in North America, north of Mexico. In addition,
many tropical vagrants are spotted occasionally in Florida
and the Southwest.

What determines a butterfly’s placement within one
family? It may share family characteristics such as wing
structure, behavior or caterpillar host plants. For
example, butterflies in the large family Nymphalidae are
called brushfoots because they all have short, brushy
forelegs. They also tend to be strong, fast fliers.

A good regional guidebook, with geographic range maps and a
caterpillar host plant index, is invaluable. Your own observations on behavior,
such as wing posture while basking, will aid in
identification and bring greater pleasure to your butterfly
watching, too. Here’s an overview of butterfly
families to look for in your garden:

Whites and Sulphurs

These medium-size butterflies with wingspans from 1 to 3
inches can be found in gardens, fields and disturbed areas.
Whites, which may have greenish marbling on the undersides
of their wings, lay eggs on mustards (Brassica). They are
strong fliers but do not wander. The cabbage white is the
most common white, and its caterpillar is a common pest of
cabbage and broccoli plants. Sulphurs, named for their
yellow coloration, may disperse in large numbers in the
fall — perhaps as a response to a sudden population
boom. Both male and female sulphurs are avid puddlers
(sipping minerals from wet soil).
Their caterpillars feed on legumes such as alfalfas
(Medicago) and clovers (Trifolium).

Coppers, Blues and Hairstreaks

Known as gossamer wings, the butterflies in this family are
tiny, with wingspans from seven-eighths to 2 inches, and
have iridescent wings. As color distinctions can blur, a
field guide is useful: There is a blue copper, and many
female blues are coppery in hue. Hairstreaks are named for
a hairlike tail on each hindwing. Near the tail, they often
have an eyespot, creating the impression of a head with
antennae. They rub their hindwings together to confuse
predators into attacking that end. All rest with their
wings closed. Tiny, sluglike caterpillars of blues and
hairstreaks may associate with ants, which protect them in
exchange for protein-rich secretions. They often pupate in
leaf litter and may overwinter in this stage.


Colorful and large, with wingspans of up to 5-1/2 inches,
swallowtails glide into your garden seeking nectar from a
variety of flowers. They often flutter their wings while
feeding, perhaps as a means of keeping balance. Their
hindwings have tails that distract predators into attacking
their rear rather than their more vulnerable head. Male
swallowtails engage in puddling and hilltopping (swooping
over a ridge to investigate territory and seek mates). The
caterpillars may resemble bird droppings or have fake
eyespots behind their heads. Many caterpillars have an
osmeterium, a forked organ behind the head that emits a
foul odor when the caterpillar is threatened. Most
swallowtails overwinter as a ridged green or brown
chrysalis attached to a tree or building with one strand of

Brushfooted Butterflies

Members of this large, diverse family, which includes
admirals, true brushfoots, longwings, satyrs, milkweed
butterflies and fritillaries, are named for their short,
brushlike forelegs — which make them appear to have
only four legs. Mostly medium-size (wingspans from 1-1/2 to
4 inches), brushfoots have wings that are often partly
orange. They may have cryptic markings on their undersides
to camouflage against tree bark or soil. Brushfoots are
strong, fast fliers. Some, most notably monarchs, migrate
long distances in spring and fall.

Many brushfoot caterpillars are covered with wicked barbs,
which protect them from predators and parasitic wasps. They
may feed in groups for safety, or rest during the day and
feed at night. The chrysalides are often angled and knobby,
with clearly defined wing shapes. They hang from branches,
without silken girdles (strands of silk).


Medium in size, with wingspans from 2 to 3-1/2 inches,
admirals are attracted to tree sap and wet soil, but they
also will visit garden flowers. Some gain protection from
predators by mimicking unpalatable species: Viceroys look
remarkably like monarchs, and red-spotted purples resemble
pipevine swallowtails. Tiny caterpillars overwinter inside
a rolled-up leaf, attached to a tree with silk. In spring,
they crawl out to feed on new foliage.

True Brushfoots

Some of our most familiar garden butterflies fall into this
category. Painted ladies, red admirals and California
tortoiseshells often disperse from the Southwest in great
numbers in late spring. Buckeyes spread north in summer,
then migrate south in the fall. Mourning cloaks (shown at
right) are widespread and frequent open woods and suburbs.
Because of their long life spans, they need additional
nutrients and seek minerals and amino acids from rotting
fruit, tree sap, animal scat and carrion.


Longwings, or heliconians, are tropical butterflies with
long, narrow wings. They have wingspans of 2-1/2 to 3-3/4
inches. All use passion flowers (Passiflora) as host plants
— a diet that renders caterpillars and adults
distasteful to predators.


Mostly medium-size, with wingspans from 1 to 2-7/8 inches,
satyrs are dull brown or gray, with several eyespots along
the edges of their wings (see wood nymph satyr at left).
They blend into their grassy habitat when basking with
wings closed. Satyrs fly weakly near the ground and are
more likely to seek tree sap than nectar. The two-tailed
caterpillars overwinter in leaf litter or attach themselves
to grass blades with silk. In spring, they form smooth
chrysalides on grass blades or in litter.

Milkweed Butterflies

Of this tropical subfamily, the monarch and queen are the
main North American butterflies. Their large orange wings
spanning 3 to 4 inches warn predators that they taste bad,
due to toxins they ingest when feeding on their primary
host plants, the milkweeds (Asclepias). They are strong
fliers, undertaking long migrations in spring and fall.
Caterpillars are boldly striped in warning colors of
yellow, black and white. The rounded chrysalides, hanging
from branches, are celadon-green with a band of gold dots.
They become transparent, revealing the orange wings within
about a day before the butterflies emerge.


Fritillaries inhabit northern and alpine regions. Bright
orange with a checkered pattern, they range in size from
small to large (wingspans from 1-1/2 to 3-3/4 inches), with
most falling in the middle. Violets (Viola) are their
primary caterpillar host plants. Greater fritillaries, such
as the great spangled fritillary, also are called
silverspots, for the silvery markings on the wing
undersides. Misnamed for its orange coloration, the gulf
fritillary actually is a longwing.

Adapted from The Butterfly Gardener’s Guide, edited
by Claire Hagen Dole and one of the Brooklyn Botanic
Garden’s All-Region Guides. To order this and other
titles published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, call (718)
623-7286 or shop online.