Bug of the Week

Instead of our usual Bug of the Week, today let's learn a bit about how to identify butterflies.

western-pygmy-blue-butterfly

Quick, do you know what kind of butterfly this is? Does it really matter?

If you want to have an active and successful butterfly garden, then it pays to know your local butterflies. That way you can tailor the plants in your garden to their particular needs.

Butterfly identification may seem intimidating, but there are some tricks to make it manageable. First, arm all your family members with cameras. A photograph can be very handy to help you study the identification details at your leisure. Second, learn the characteristics of the groups of butterflies called families. Once you have mastered those, a trip to the identification guide or website is much more successful. By the way, that butterfly in the photograph is a western pygmy blue, a member of the blue family.

Before we get started, if you are not familiar with what insect parts are called, check out our post with information about caterpillar and butterfly anatomy.

Next, if you are not sure the insect you have is a butterfly or moth, brush up on the differences between butterflies and moths at our website.

Butterfly Identification - Butterfly Families

Entomologists group butterflies with similar characteristics into families. You don't need to memorize the scientific names (unless you want to do so). I added them so you can add them to your search terms when looking for species.

1. Family Hesperiidae - commonly called skippers

Characteristics:  Skippers are butterflies that most resemble moths. Two differences are that they tend to hold their wings at a 45° angle (rather that flat out or folded back) and their slender antennae often end in a hook.

skipper-on-lantanaYou can see the angled wings very well in this photograph.

 2. Family Papilionidae - commonly called swallowtails

Characteristics:  Swallowtails are known for their bold, contrasting color patterns and the presence of extensions or "tails" on their hind wings.

giant-swallowtailThe giant swallowtail has the characteristic look of the family Papilionidae.

3. Family Pieridae - called whites, sulphurs, and orange-tips

Characteristics:  Most are white, light yellow, or orange, and have simple, rounded wings. They are medium-sized and have normal front legs.

sulphur-butterflyA sulphur butterfly's wings are simply elegant.

4. Family Lycaenidae - Coppers, blues and hairstreaks

Characteristics:  The members of this family are delicate, very small butterflies. The blues often have blue upper wings, whereas the coppers are brown. Hairstreaks have tiny tails on their hind wings.

hairstreak-on-dogwoodCan you see the tiny tails on the hind wings?

hairstreak-butterfly257How about on this one?

Some people think the tails resemble antennae, thus confusing predators about which end is the head.

5. Family Libytheidae- snout butterflies

Characteristics:  Snout butterflies are named for their long, hairy mouthparts that project forward from their head like a snout.

snout-butterflySee how the mouthparts extend way out past the eyes in this snout butterfly? Compare to where the eyes are in the other butterflies in this post.

6. Family Heliconiidae - called the heliconians

Characteristics:  Often brightly colored, with wings that are longer than they are wide.

zebra-butterlyThe wings of this zebra butterfly show the distinctive shape characteristic of the family.

7. Family Nymphalidae- the brush-footed butterflies

Characteristics:  This family is large and its members vary a lot in color, size and shape. The brush-footed butterflies have reduced (short) forelegs, but it isn't an easy trait to see.

buckeye-butterfly-sunningThe buckeye butterfly in the Butterfly Gardening Week button is a brush-footed butterfly.

 8. Family Danaidae - milkweed butterflies

Characteristics:  These large brown or orange butterflies are sometimes grouped with the brush-footed butterflies. Their larvae feed on milkweeds.

queen-butterflies-3-plusQueen and monarch butterflies belong to this family.

 1. Butterfly Identification Activity

Now let's put your new skills to the test.

What families do these butterflies belong to?

1. What family does this black, white and blue butterfly belong to?

Mystery-butterfly-1-identification

2. This brown, orange and white butterfly has one unique characteristic found in no other families. What is it?

mystery-butterfly-2-identication

3. What family does this butterfly belong?

mystery-burrefly-3-identification

(Answers will be posted next Wednesday).

2. Butterfly Nature Journals and Art Projects

As I've mentioned previously, keeping a nature journal or photographic record of your findings is a great idea. Tied with that, drawing or coloring butterfly illustrations helps with recognition and observation skills. Look for free, printable butterfly pages that show realistic butterflies and make some creative art projects. Be sure to take note of the important features of each kind of butterfly.

Butterfly World has downloadable (.pdf or Word) coloring books that feature the exotic butterflies found in their exhibit.

Dover Publishers has a good selection of nature-related coloring books, as well. For example:  Butterflies Coloring Book (Dover Nature Coloring Book) by Jan Sovak

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Feeling Crafty?

Running with Scissors has an absolutely adorable butterfly metamorphosis smock to make for little ones.

 

butterfly-gardening-with-children

Be sure to keep up with all the posts relating to butterfly gardening with children at our links page.

If you are looking for great children's books about butterflies and moths, try our list at Science Books for Kids.

moth-and-butterfly-books-for-children-list

The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.
~Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun

swallowtail-on-flower

Butterflies are colorful, interesting insects. Many children find them fascinating. In fact, butterflies have become so popular that over the last few decades, butterfly houses and pavilions have sprung up all over. Children are more likely to have experienced butterflies close up than ever before. You may wonder whether you even need to plant your own butterfly garden when a trip to see butterflies is only a car ride away.

Although butterfly exhibits are educational and fun to explore, some children will be inspired to learn more about butterflies after visiting. Here are a few good reasons to consider butterfly gardening with children:

Butterfly-Gardening- Infographic2(By the way, this comparison is not intended to be negative about butterfly exhibits, but only to encourage exploration beyond their limits.)

Tips for Starting Your Own Butterfly Garden

What do butterflies need to survive? Food, water and shelter are all important. Let's find out how to provide butterflies with the necessities.

1. Adult Butterfly Nectar Plants

An easy way to get started with butterfly gardening is to provide some flowering plants to provide nectar for adult butterflies. These plants may be in your yard or even in pots on your patio.

Choosing plants can be a bit daunting at first. Try taking a walk around some local gardens and note which plants butterflies are visiting. Check with local butterfly societies and plant nurseries for suggestions, as well. Ideally you want to have a range of plants that bloom over the entire growing season.

Native versus non-native plants

When you are just starting out, you may just want to try planting some old favorites, like zinnias or cosmos. Butterfly experts recommend, however, that you also include some native or local plants. For example, given a choice between:

real-butterfly-weed-dcThe butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) which is native to eastern North America, or...

tropical-butterfly-milkweed-flowers-orange

the the exotic tropical or blood milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the butterfly milkweed is a safer bet. If you are an experienced butterfly gardener, you might want to check this .pdf article about the recent controversy about the tropical milkweed and the monarch butterfly.

Some butterfly favorite plants are:

  • milkweeds (monarchs, queens)
  • lantana
  • butterfly bush
  • ageratum (attracts male queen butterflies)
  • dill, fennel or parsley (swallowtails)
  • hollyhocks (painted lady)
  • passion flower (fritillaries)

2. Caterpillar host plants

If you are interested in raising butterflies and seeing the life stages, then it is important to provide the plants that caterpillars use for food. Caterpillars often have specific and limited feeding preferences. Look for information about your local butterflies and their hosts at websites like Butterflies and Moths of North America (click on the "regional checklists" tab).

black-swallowtail-larva-Papilio polyxenes-22

Dill and fennel are eaten by certain swallowtail caterpillars. Butterfly gardeners always plant some extra for the butterflies.

3. Water

Even though many butterflies drink nectar, some also drink water or obtain nutrients from wet spots in the garden. Providing a damp bare spot or patch of moist sand is likely to be enough.

nice-swallowtail-puddling

4. Shelter

Butterflies need places to stow away at night, and to shelter from wind and rain during the day. Providing leafy shrubs and trees, plus not being excessively tidy are great ways to ensure butterflies have safe places to hide.

This video from University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension has some good ideas.



Other suggestions:

No two butterfly gardens will be alike. They will vary according to region, size and the individual taste of the gardeners. Make butterfly gardening a family project and don't be afraid to let your creativity run wild.

Consider recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. You might even want to keep a blog or share on Instagram or Flickr to inspire other butterfly gardeners. The possibilities are endless!

Do you have a butterfly garden? Have you gardened with children? What tips would you share? Have you encountered any problems? What suggestions do you have to avoid them?

Be sure to check our Butterfly Gardening With Children links page for more activities throughout the week.

butterfly-gardening-with-children

 

Butterfly gardening has become an incredibly popular activity. It is so easy, because all it requires is a little space and a few carefully chosen plants. It can be an extremely rewarding activity to carry out with children, who can experience hands-on science at its best while learning about topics like pollination, insect life cycles, and weather. We are so excited about it that we are going to devote a week of blog posts to butterfly gardening with children.

butterfly-gardening-with-children

Our schedule:

Monday: The basics of butterfly gardening with children.

Tuesday: Figure out the five Mystery Seeds that will become great butterfly garden plants.

Edit:  The answers are now posted. See five great nectar plants for butterfly gardens.

Wednesday:  Identifying Butterflies for Beginners (with activity suggestions)

Thursday:  Pollination and butterflies (with activity suggestions)

Friday:  Adding trees to your butterfly garden.

We made it through the week!

 

Growing Resource List:

Butterfly and Moth Activities at Growing with Science website.

Butterfly Project has information about starting a butterfly garden.

Butterfly science activities here at Growing with Science blog

The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) has an extensive list of plants for butterfly gardens.

All about monarch butterflies and their migrations at Journey North

More about identifying butterflies at Gardens With Wings

See our list of fabulous children's books about butterflies and moths at Science Books for Kids.

 

Please join us and feel free to add links to your own posts, any questions, or ideas for topics about butterfly gardening with children in the comments.

 

Our new affiliate, Botanical Interests, has a wide selection of butterfly gardening seeds including Bring Home the Butterflies Seed Mix and Butterfly Milkweed seeds. If you click through the ads and order seeds, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.