Types of Butterflies

The types of butterflies native to the world's fields, forests and residential areas, present themselves to humans both formally and informally.

Informally, butterflies present themselves as the colorful, winged insects associated with flowers and warm, sunny days.

Formal butterfly types commonly follows traditional scientific typology rules that organize butterflies into families, subfamilies, genera and species based on a set of shared physical characteristics such as wing color or shape.

The global butterfly population currently consists of six families, with experts identifying anywhere between fifteen to nineteen thousand different species. Butterfly diversity reaches its high in the area from Mexico to the southern tip of South America.

North America, a relatively less diverse butterfly region, hosts approximately seven hundred species, with representatives from all six families.

The links in the box on the right point to pages of more detailed information, pictures and videos of the different types of butterflies sketched on this page.

Hesperiidae (skippers): The skippers, the small brownish butterflies, also get characterized by their relatively large eyes and closed wings at rest. Spreadwing skippers are the general exception to that rule.

Sometimes mistaken for moths, their clubbed antennae help identify it as a butterfly. Common names for Hesperiidae species include longtails, flashers, cloudywings, flats, sootywings, duskywings and skipperlings.

Lycaenidae (gossamer-wings):



Gossamer-wing butterflies, generally small in size, initially get grouped according to both color and wing appendages. Lycanidae subfamilies, for example, go by the common names, blues, coppers and hairstreaks.

Blue butterflies (Polyommatinae), for example, share the physical characteristic of males having blue wings. Wing color of females differs from blue to brown, depending on the species.

Often identification of blue butterflies begins with a close examination of the patterns present on the underside of the wings. Click on the blue butterflies link to view a video that shows a handful of blue butterfly species with the wings folded, highlighting those patterns.

The thin, tail looking appendage on the bottom of hairstreak butterfly wings, on the other hand, usually serves as the physical characteristic uniting that subfamily. Of course, the tail looking appendage for hairstreaks represents one rule of thumb. The colorful green hairstreak butterfly in the video Copper butterflies tend to have brown to copper shaded wings.

Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies): The brush-footed butterflies constitute the largest butterfly family, accounting for approximately thirty percent of all North American butterfly species.

Formally divided into eleven subfamilies, their common names such as admirals, fritillaries, checkerspots, ladies, crescents, commas and tortoiseshells ring a familiar note for most butterfly enthusiasts.

Many brush-footed butterfly species have wings with an orange color, making a close examination of their wing patterns necessary for proper identification.

The video on the right shows the Hoary Comma, highlighting the many variations on the basic orange and brown wing patterns common to brush-footed butterflies.

Monarch Butterflies, Queens and Soldiers, for example, similar looking species in the danaus genus can be distinguished from each other by their wing patterns.

Papilionidae (swallowtails): Swallowtail butterflies the dominant Papilionidae subfamily, can often be recognized by their larger than average size and the presences of extended appendages (tails) at the bottom of their wings.

Many, but not all swallowtail butterflies have black or yellow patterned wings.

Pieridae (whites and sulphurs): The white and sulphur (yellow) butterflies, easily spotted in the field, initially get identified and sorted into the family on account of their wing color. One of the most common white butterflies present in North American yards and gardens, the Cabbage White butterfly, raises young that feed on garden vegetables.

Common names for Pieridae species include marbles, orangetips, yellows and dogfaces. The approximately seventy documented species makes it one of the smaller butterfly families in terms of species diversity.

The short video clip of the Pine White butterfly typifies adult Pieridae behavior, nectaring on a flower.

Riodinidae (metalmarks): Primarily a tropical family, a small group of species populate areas along southern North America, especially the Southwest.

The Blue Metalmark in the video at the top of the page (or depending on the viewing device, below this description) shows the colorful nature of the subtropical species. Most North American species have brown wings.

Improving Rural Butterfly Habitat

Driving along any any rural road or strolling the backwoods on a sunny spring or summer afternoon brings the sights and sound of nature to life, including the sighting of colorful butterflies.

New research suggests that improving rural butterfly populations may be as easy as doing nothing at all. Richard Yahner, a professor of wildlife conservation at the Pennsylvania State University recently completed a study on rural butterfly populations and said,

I found that butterflies can thrive along the edges of forest logging roads, within power line rights-of-way and along the edges of farmlands and other agricultural lands....By taking a few simple steps, farmers and forest managers can help these communities maintain themselves.

Those steps include things such as farmers leaving 15-20 foot strips of land around the edges of their fields free from planting and animal grazing. Doing nothing, literally leaving the strips to go wild, fosters growth of native plants conducive to butterfly breeding and feeding.

Rural and forest road managers can also follow the do nothing route by refraining from mowing the strips of land that border the roads until September. Yahner notes that, "Various butterfly species will use edge habitats for a short time. If road edges are mowed in June, this will not only destroy habitat for butterflies that may use it then, but also for other species that may use the same area later in the summer."

In the end, do nothing conservation practices promote biodiversity. For example, butterflies and wildflowers, the perfect nature picture, go hand in hand. Butterflies both pollinate and feed upon them. Increased butterfly populations encourage the continual propagation of wildflowers. Additionally, butterfly larvae, the caterpillars, are important food sources for many birds.

Good advice for rural farmer and/or woodlot owner, take a load off of your feet. Do nothing except watch the butterfly population grow.

Butterfly Releases

Butterfly releases, the practice of releasing commercially bred butterflies for weddings, school events and other special occasions, continues to make news. Because of the potential to wreck havoc on agricultural products, commercial butterfly breeding for release is regulated by both state and federal agencies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the interstate transfer of live butterflies. Currently they provide permits for the transportation and release of eight species. These are the showy species, just the types that people like to see. They are comparatively large butterflies with bright colors.

In 1998, The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) came out against the practice of butterfly releases saying,

Butterflies raised by unregulated commercial interests may spread diseases and parasites to wild populations, with devastating results. Often, butterflies are released great distances from their points of origin, resulting in inappropriate genetic mixing of different populations when the same species is locally present. When it is not, a nonnative species is being introduced in the area of release. At best, this confuses studies of butterfly distribution and migration; at worst, it may result in deleterious changes to the local ecology.

Responding to the article, a spokesman for the International Butterfly Breeders Association said,

There is no basis in fact to support the statement that butterfly releases are harmful to the wild butterfly population. As in all types of agriculture, disease prevention in butterfly and moth farming is key to a quality product and vital to a successful operation.

Who's right? There is no easy answer. While the effects of butterfly releases on the environment is little understood, the issue of the effects of butterfly releases on the butterflies themselves can be intuitively grasped. Butterflies are fans of warm weather and sunshine. Many are reliant on specific plants and flowers for not only their food but also larval larva's food. Any butterfly release in alien habitat or unfriendly weather conditions is certain to doom the butterfly.

© 2005-2014. Patricia A. Michaels.