Types of Butterflies Worth Knowing

From painted ladies to monarchs and malachite butterflies you'll want to add all of these butterflies to your must-see list!

Now is prime time to appreciate the beauty of butterflies. Take a look at our list of the most delightful and impressive species in North America, then get out  there and see how many you can spot. Though they won’t all be in your region, these fascinating fliers should be on your bucket list.

FREDERIC B. SISKIND
Monarch on purple milkweed

Monarch

It’s the world’s most famous butterfly. The monarch is renowned for its migration, when multiple generations work their way north during spring and summer, then a fall generation flies all the way to southern Mexico or to the California coast to spend the winter. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, absorbing chemicals that will stay in their system to make even the adults taste bad to predators.

ANTHONY MERCIECA
Gulf frittillery on ageratum

Gulf Fritillary

With long, narrow wings, big silvery spots and a pattern of black lines on orange, the Gulf fritillary is a high-fashion butterfly, looking elegant from any angle. Named for the Gulf of Mexico, you can also find it from the Carolinas to California, and it wanders far to the north. Gardeners can spruce up their yards and attract this flashy flier by growing its host plant: passion vine.

RICHARD DAY/ DAYBREAK IMAGERY
Cloudless sulphur pn thistle

Cloudless Sulphur

North America has many kinds of yellow sulphur butterflies, and this is one of the largest. Males are pale yellow all over, while females vary from white to dull orange. Cloudless sulphurs are most abundant in the South, but every year in late summer they wander far to the north, fluttering along through all kinds of open country, even reaching Canada.

BILL JOHNSON
Giant swallowtail on purple coneflower

Giant Swallowtail

Although some eastern tiger swallowtails are actually bigger, the giant swallowtail is usually considered to be our largest butterfly, spanning as much as five inches from wingtip to wingtip. Very common across the South, it regularly gets as far north as the Great Lakes and sometimes farther. Its caterpillars feed on leaves of trees and shrubs in the citrus family.

RICHARD DAY/ DAYBREAK IMAGERY
Zebra swallowtail on butterfly bush

Zebra Swallowtail

This ethereal beauty of a butterfly flutters like a dream through eastern forests. Zebra-striped black and white with accents of red, it features long tails on the hindwings. Adults that emerge in summer tend to have even longer tails than the springtime broods. As caterpillars, they feed on the leaves of a small tree called the pawpaw, common in shady woods, especially in the south.

RICHARD DAY/ DAYBREAK IMAGERY
Western pygmy blue

Western Pygmy Blue

Butterflies known as blues are all small, but this one is absurdly tiny, measuring barely over half an inch across with its wings fully spread. There isn’t room for much color on those wings, but a touch of blue shows up in flight. Usually considered to be our smallest butterflies, western pygmy blues are common in the West and Southwest, fluttering low over salt marshes, desert flats and even vacant lots.

ROB CURTIS/THE IMAGE FINDERS
Harvester

Harvester

A carnivorous butterfly? It sounds like something out of science fiction, but it’s true. The caterpillars of this eastern butterfly are found on alders and other plants, but they’re not eating the plants. Instead, they crawl around munching on aphids. Adult harvesters rarely visit flowers; you’re more likely to see them chasing each other around the edges of alder thickets near streams.

Paul D. Lemke/The Image Finders
Painted lady on cosmos

Painted Lady

The most widespread butterflies in the world, painted ladies are found on six continents and many oceanic islands. They’re also found all over North America, but not at the same time. In winter they’re mostly in the Southwest or Mexico, but in warmer seasons they spread across most of the continent. Sometimes they make headlines, with millions flying above open country.

ROB CURTIS/THE IMAGE FINDERS
Mourning cloak

Mourning Cloak

You can find this big, distinctive butterfly throughout North America—and almost throughout the year. While most butterflies pass the winter in the caterpillar, pupa or egg stage, the mourning cloak hibernates as an adult. This means it could come out on warm winter days. Even in the north, it will fly during February thaws, and it makes a stunning sight as it glides through snowy woods.

ROB CURTIS/THE IMAGE FINDERS
Malachite

Malachite

Intensely tropical, the big, beautiful malachite flutters through the dappled light and shade of wooded gardens in southern Florida, and sometimes appears in southern Texas as well. When it lands, it shows off a scalloped wing shape and an elegant stained-glass pattern with panes of lime green and frames of chocolate brown.

DAVE WELLING
Great purple hairstreak

Great Purple Hairstreak

Despite the name, it’s not a great big butterfly, and it’s not purple, either. But it’s larger than most of the hairstreaks (a group of tiny fliers), and it flashes a beautiful blue when it flies. Sitting still, it looks mostly charcoal gray with accents of red, blue, orange and white. And its caterpillars have specialized
tastes—they feed on mistletoe.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.