Nature at Green Art


Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera)


Creating a refuge for native plants and animals

     All photos are taken in my display garden. I supply nectar plants as well as food plants for caterpillars. Butterfly bushes, although alien to North America, are nevertheless a great plant to attract nectar-feeding insects. Some of my butterfly bushes have reached impressive proportions and on the warm late summer days there are often more than 20 butterflies around each of them. For detailed information on butterfly gardens see the following page: Designing Butterfly Gardens

Swallowtails (Papilionidae) are among the most exotic looking butterflies found in New England

The adult Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) feeds on many different kinds of flowers, but the caterpillars feed only on Aspen, Tulip Tree and Black Cherry

  Tiger Swallowtail (probably Papilio canadensis) on Queen-Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)


My favorite butterfly is the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). It reaches a wingspan of over 5 inches and the colors are just wonderful. Often the dots have some yellow in them, intensifying the contrast with the black and blue.


In this photo, the adult is feeding on Gooseneck Loosestrive, a vigorous garden perennial that can colonize large areas if soil is moist. However, it is not considered invasive, like its purple cousin.


The beautiful caterpillar of the Eastern Black Swallowtail feeds on fennel, dill, parsley, Queen-Anne's Lace and other plants of the parsley family



photo: Thomas Berger



photo: Steve Delaney

Whites and Sulphurs, as well as the Orangetips, belong to the Pieridae family.

The Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) was introduced from Europe. It is a wide-spread pest of cabbage, broccoli and other garden vegetables in the mustard family.


The adults of the Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) take nectar from many different kinds of wildflowers, but the caterpillars only feast on plants in the pea family, including our garden beans. The planting of clover and alfalfa by farmers all over the continent has lead to an expansion of the distribution of this butterfly in the last 200 years. It can be found from Mexico to Alaska and from Florida to Newfoundland.

The Gossamer Wings (Lycaenidae) is a family of small butterflies, including the Coppers, Hairstreaks and Metalmarks.


On the right, an American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) is visiting the late-blooming Montaug Daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum) in the early days of fall. Caterpillar food plants are sorrels and docks (both Rumex sp.), which are common lawn and garden weeds. To help this and many other species of butterflies leave areas of your yard weedy, or allow for a wild 'meadow' to get established, which would hopefully contain a wide variety of 'weeds' and other wildflowers. 


The Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas) is the only Blue that has a tailed wing (see thread-like appendix barely visible in this image). These tails are more common with the related Hairstreaks (see below). The female Eastern Tailed Blue is brownish above, while the male has some blue colors. Larvae feed on plants of the pea family.
It is fascinating to observe the Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus) up close. It usually holds the ends of the wings higher up than its head. The 'tails' of the wings and the eye pattern confuse predators, thinking what they see is the head, and who therefore attack from the wrong end, only to bite out a small piece of the wing instead of the head or body of the butterfly. To further mislead the predator, the butterfly shifts its wings slightly back and forth, setting the wing tails in a vibration that makes them look just like actively moving antennae.
The efficiency of the 'wrong-head' mimicry is apparent in this photo, where a chunk of wing from the hind end has been bitten off, but the butterfly is still happily roaming for nectar.

The caterpillars feed on oaks, butternut and hickories.

There are probably nine species of Spring Azures (Celastrina sp.) in North America and their classification is still actively researched.

Caterpillars feed on dogwood (Cornus), wild cherry (Prunus) and meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia).

The Brush-footed butterflies (Nymphalidae) have short front legs that are covered with bristles. Many of our best known butterflies are members of this family.


The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is one of the most abundant butterfly species worldwide. It is a migratory butterfly, moving into New England from the south each season. Mass-migrations can count tens of thousands of individuals.


The caterpillars love thistles and other plants of the compositae family, such as pussytoes. They also like hollyhocks.



The Painted Lady has four eye patches on the underside of the hind wing. Two smaller patches are placed between two larger ones. The American Painted Lady has only two large eye patches (see below).


The underside reveals interesting netting and the two eye patches of the hind wings that identify this species as American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).

The caterpillars eat plants of the Compositae family, apparently preferring grey or silvery-leaved plants, such as Pussy-toes (Antennaria). I observed that they also like the Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) in my rock garden.



These two Ladies are American Painted Lady butterflies. I counted up to approximately 40 individuals at one time on one of my butterfly bushes in 2012, while in 2013 I saw very few of them.



The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), like its close relative the Painted Lady, is a migratory butterfly. It moves north in large numbers, but most of the adult butterfly die there in the winter. The northern populations are replenished each year through new migrations from the south.

The Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) is a very common small butterflies whose caterpillars feed on Asters.

The underside is a pale orange and lacks the beautiful dark patterns.

photo: Steve Delaney


The Wood Nymph butterfly (Cercyonis pegala) feeds on tree sap and decaying fruit, but occasionally takes some nectar as well. Here seen on Butterfly bush "Black Night". The caterpillars feed on grasses.

This Monarch (Danaus plexippus) feeds on nectar from the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii). Although Butterfly Bush is an alien plant I find it exceptionally useful to attact adult butterflies and provide them with rich meals of nectar from mid summer to the first days of fall. The caterpillars feed only on milkweed (Asclepias). I have three species in my garden: the Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) in moist locations, but also in average garden soil. The Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) in dry locations, and the Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) which self-seeds along the road side. Unfortunately I have not ever observed Monarch caterpillars on these. I will experiment with greater plant density to see if that will help to attract egg-laying females.

One would think that this butterfly is another monarch, but it is actually a Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), a butterfly that mimics the bad-tasting Monarch for protection. To the surprise of scientists the Viceroy, like the Monarch, also contains poisonous and unpalatable substances.

The Monarch is quite a bit larger than the Viceroy, and the Viceroy has an extra black line in the pattern of the hind wing.



The 'Red-Spotted Purple' (Limenitis arthemis) is a mimic of the 'Pipevine Swallowtail' and also resembles the 'Black Swallowtail'. The caterpillars feed on plants of the willow family, such as aspen, poplars and willows.

This butterfly and the White Admiral are color-variations that belong to the same species.




I observed the beautiful Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) feeding on sap from a tree trunk that had been cut a few weeks earlier.



In this picture it is easy to see the coiled galea (click photo to enlarge)



The Common buckeye (Junonia coenia) has striking eye-patches. You could see an entire face with nostrils and  a broad mouth (formed by the edge of the hind wings) in the

This Buckeye is sucking nectar from Eupatorium, a native Wildflower common in moist meadows

The Skippers (Herperiidae) usually hold their front wings in a 45 degree angle, while moths usually keep their wings flat, and true butterflies keep their wings folded upright at 90 degrees.

Skippers have short wings and heavy bodies, and are fast flyers. There are more than 250 species in North America alone.


This Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) sucks nectar on a Butterfly Bush. The caterpillars feed on  plants of the pea-family, such as locust trees, wisteria and alfalfa.


photo: Steve Delaney


The Fiery Skipper (Hylephilus phyleus) is frequently found in suburbs, towns and cities, because the caterpillars feed on a number of common lawn and weed grasses.

Females are dark brown on the upper side with orange or yellow spots, males show more orange or yellow. The underside on the wings is a light orange with a few dark dots, at least in some of the images that are supposed to show male and female Fiery skippers. However, the images that are supposed to help with identification vary a lot, often to a degree where I think this can not the same animal they are talking about. If one takes a look at the long list of skipper species native to the US it becomes obvious that proper identification is very complicated and best left to the specialist. Photo ID is just an approximation!

The skipper on the right is almost certainly a Fiery Skipper judging by the underside pattern, and a male judging from the sparse brown of the upper side.

..... while this one here is certainly not the same species (Although images that resemble this are identified in some of the id-websites I was using as Fiery Skipper). But I understand from one convincing photo of a mating couple that both male and female have the same pale orange with just a few brown dots on the underside.

My best guess is that this is a Long Dash Skipper or Indian Skipper.

 This entirely brown species could well be the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)


On this image the color comes out a bit better and the torso is better visible.

I would guess this tiny fellow to be a Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), which lives round ponds and wetlands, and that's indeed where I sighted it.

The side view of the Least Skipper allows to see the underside of the wings, which are a pale orange with only some faint markings.
Unlike the above group of skippers the subfamily of the Spread-wing Skippers keep their wings spread out flat when they rest, like most butterflies do. Typical representatives of this group are the Duskywings.
Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae) is abundant in my garden all summer long. It seems to be particularly fond of Agastache, but I also have seen it on many other flowers.


So far I have not dared to venture far into moth identification. Here are just a few examples that are especially striking.



The Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe) resembles a hummingbird in appearance and behavior. Both stand still in the air in front of flowers, moving their wings at high speed as they suck nectar.

This night visitor came into my workshop and sat down on my straw hat. It is a Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) with a wingspan of almost half a foot - one of the largest moth species in North America. Caterpillars feed on a variety of trees including elm, maple, poplar and birch.

In my perception, this moth has the image of the face of an owl on it's hind wings.

White Slantline Moth (Tetracis cachexiata) well camouflaged on Trillium flower in my new 'Mother Earth Garden', where I planted native white-flowering perennials and shrubs around a circular pond. This moth fits the color scheme perfectly. 
Zale horrida features a beautiful wave pattern that stretches over both wings. It also has a bristly thorax and some wart-like knobs along the top of the abdomen. The larvae feed on Viburnums.
Looper Moths (Autographa) are very common and their larvae feed on a wide variety of plants. The larvae lack two pairs of their stubby legs so they move similar to inchworms.
Haploa clymene is strikingly colored. It is active both at day and at night.
Plume Moths (Pterophoridae) form their own family, recognized by their small wings, and in some cases feathery legs (see image on left). They are very small.
Ctenucha virginica belongs to a group of moths that appear to mimic wasps (such as large sand wasps). Some southern species resemble yellowjackets. They are active by day searching for nectar. The larvae are wooly with white and pale yellow hair and feed frequently on grasses.


Learn more about butterfly gardens and study my plant lists.



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