The gorgeous long-tailed skipper will fool you at first. Seeing them in flight or from the side, you expect these little darting creatures to be a dull brown, with nothing much to set them apart except their long tails. But when you see a long-tailed skipper at rest, you’ll see the beautiful blue coloration that makes them such delightful butterflies to follow and photograph.
What’s A Skipper? It’s understandable if your first reaction to a long-tailed skipper was, “Is that a butterfly or a moth?” They fly during the day like butterflies, but have some characteristics that seem to set them apart from other butterflies. Scientists have generally compromised by declaring skippers to be a third category, somewhere between butterflies and moths. To the amateur butterfly gardener, though, it makes little difference. (Learn more about butterflies, moths, and skippers here.)
Long-tailed skippers (Urbanus proteus) are found in much of the Eastern and Southern U.S. (see a map here) and throughout the New World tropics. Their host plants (the plants their caterpillars eat) are those in the legume family, so a vegetable gardener may occasionally find these caterpillars on their green beans or peas. Long-tailed skipper caterpillars are “leaf-rollers” – they take shelter inside leaves by using silk to draw the leaf around them. The caterpillars have hard little heads, making it easy to tell front from back, and bright orange coloration at their tail end. (This is one way to tell them apart from their close relative, the Dorantes skipper.)
To attract long-tailed skippers to your yard, plant something in the legume family, like beans, peas, beggar’s tick, wisteria, etc. If you are having trouble with caterpillars from these butterflies in your vegetable garden, consider planting a separate patch of beans or peas and moving pest caterpillars to these plants instead of killing them outright. Adult butterflies are drawn to small flowers like lantana and pentas, but will be found on just about any good nectar plant.