March 14, 2013

If it is a big orange butterfly, it isn't necessarily a Monarch!

We seem to have an urge to put a name on whatever we see, and over the years we've gotten interested in identifying butterflies. This seems to happen to many birders, since butterflies are most active during mid-day when the birding action typically slows. 

From time to time, someone passing us on a trail asks us what we are looking at, and invariably if we are looking at a large orange butterfly they ask "Is that a Monarch?" no matter where we are or what season it is. That's a pretty good guess in central Ohio in the summer, but there are a few other possibilities. Further south, you have to be pretty careful because there are several other things it can be. In any event, it is fun and challenging to get a good look at these beautiful creatures and to figure out what they are.

I've selected eight big orange butterflies for this post that can be readily seen in eastern North America. There are some others but I figure that this is enough for now!

Butterfly Royalty

Queen, Monarch, Soldier and Viceroy--these are the four that present the biggest challenge. I wish I knew how they all happened to be named for public figures of sorts; that occurred a long time ago and in fact some go by more than one common name. Here they are, in all their orange glory:

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are the most familiar to us in Ohio.  Their wings show heavy black veining on both the upper and lower sides. Note that the Monarch is the only one of the four that has some yellow on the forewing. The individual pictured is a male; if you look on the hindwing near the abdomen you can see a wide black spot along one of the black veins. This is a gland which produces scents, presumably to attract females. The females detect scents with their antennae, and identify suitable plants upon which to lay their eggs with their feet. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweeds, which contain a chemical that makes them unpalatable to potential predators. I could write a whole post on Monarchs, and maybe I will someday!

The Queen (Danaus gilippus) is mostly a southern butterfly, and can be abundant at times. Again, the black spots on the hindwing identify this individual as a male. Milkweeds are the caterpillar food source for Queens, as they are for Monarchs. In order to identify the butterfly as a Queen, it has to have the three strongly white spots on the forewing that are marked with arrows in the photo.

The Soldier (Danaus eresimus) is another southern butterfly that looks quite similar to the closely related Monarch and Queen. It is also dependent on milkweeds. Like the Queen, the veins on the wings are not as black as they are in the Monarch. The Soldier is probably the milkweed butterfly least likely to be seen in North America, but there is always a chance in the south. 

The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), unrelated to the milkweed butterflies, mimics their coloration quite well in order to avoid predators. The black band across the hindwing is diagnostic, though, and is unmistakable if you get a good look at it. Viceroys are also a bit smaller than Monarchs, and their flight isn't quite as graceful. Willows are its preferred caterpillar food plant. They are fairly common here in Ohio; one nearby place that is quite reliable for them in summer is Glacier Ridge Metro Park. 


Fritillaries are another group of big orange butterflies. There are lots of them; many are western. Here are two that are pretty common in the eastern U.S. 

First is the Great Spangled Fritillary, which comes to gardens and meadows throughout much of North America. 

The upper side of this butterfly is light orange with black or brown spots. Many of the fritillaries look quite similar but if you look carefully each species has its own distinct pattern. On the underside of the hindwing, the silvery spots which give this insect its name are spectacular and are worth a close look. Eggs are laid on dry vegetation and then upon hatching the caterpillars find violets to feed on.

Here is another fritillary, and this one is most common in the south although it has been recorded in Ohio and its range may be extending northward. It is called the Gulf Fritillary, and it is truly spectacular:

The underside has irregularly shaped silver spots and the upperside is an intense orange. Its body has crazy stripes:

Passion flower is its preferred caterpillar food plant, but the adults can be found nectaring on many different species of flowers.

A couple more

Here are two more big orange butterflies. The first is the unmistakable Julia Heliconian (Dryas iulia); you probably won't see these in the U.S. outside of south Florida and south Texas although there is some northward movement in the summer:

Similar to the Gulf Fritillary, passion vines are its preferred caterpillar food plant and it can be seen nectaring on a variety of flowers including lantana. 

Last but not least is one of my favorites, the Ruddy Daggerwing (Marpesia petreus). In the U.S. it is primarily found in south Florida, but there are records of it in several states farther north. 

This gorgeous insect is mostly found in woodlands and its caterpillars feed on fig plants.

So hopefully these 8 big butterflies have brightened up your day and maybe they have inspired you to look more carefully at the insects that you encounter in your garden and your travels!

1 comment:

  1. The butterfly photos are lovely, and you did a great job of pointing out the distinguishing characteristics.