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How do I identify my butterfly?

How do I identify my butterfly?

Identifying butterflies can seem daunting at first, but with some basic knowledge about butterfly anatomy, behavior, and life cycles, you’ll be able to easily distinguish common butterfly species. Pay attention to things like wing size, shape, color patterns, flight habits, and host plants to get started with butterfly identification. With practice, you’ll soon be able to recognize many of the butterflies found in your own backyard or neighborhood.

Examine the Wings

The first thing to look at when trying to identify a butterfly is its wings. Pay attention to the size, shape, color, and pattern of markings on the wings. Here are some tips for examining the wings more closely:

  • Size – Is the butterfly large or small? Large butterflies tend to be swallowtails, monarchs, or fritillaries. Small butterflies include skippers, hairstreaks, and blues.
  • Shape – Look at the outline of the wings. Are they rounded, angular, or long and narrow? Wing shape can help distinguish lookalike species.
  • Color – What colors do you notice on the upper and lower wing surfaces? Brighter colors like red, orange, or yellow often indicate warning coloration. More drab browns or grays are used as camouflage.
  • Markings – Check for stripes, spots, bands, eyespots, or other patterns on the wings. These markings are unique to different species.

You’ll need to look at the upper and lower wing surfaces, as the coloration and patterning may be dramatically different on each side. If possible, take a photograph of the wings open as well as closed from above and below. This will help with identification later on.

Assess Body Shape and Size

In addition to wing characteristics, take note of the butterfly’s body shape and size:

  • Body shape – Does the body look fat or slender? Hairy or smooth? This provides clues to family groupings.
  • Abdomen – Is the abdomen slim or swollen? Swollen abdomens indicate a gravid (egg laden) female.
  • Antennae – Are the antennae long and thin or short and stubby? Antennae length is characteristic of certain families.
  • Proboscis – Check for the presence and length of the proboscis or “tongue.” Long proboscises mean the butterfly can reach nectar from deep flowers.
  • Legs – Leg size and shape is associated with certain families. Long hindlegs indicate a fast flier.

Paying attention to these physical traits will help narrow down butterfly species and families. Make notes and take pictures from multiple angles if possible.

Watch Flight Patterns and Speed

Observing a butterfly in flight can provide more clues to its identity:

  • Flight speed – Is the butterfly fast and darting or slow and floaty? Speed indicates differences between families.
  • Directness of flight – Do they fly in a straight line or flutter around more erratically?
  • Wing flapping – Are the wingbeats fast or slow, shallow or deep?
  • Gliding – Does the butterfly glide a lot between wing flaps?
  • Interaction – How does the butterfly interact with others? Is it territorial or communal?

Butterflies that are fast and direct fliers include swallowtails and sulphurs. Slower, floating flight is characteristic of brushfooted butterflies like monarchs and fritillaries. Skipping from flower to flower shows a foraging habit typical of many species.

Note Caterpillar Host Plants

An important clue to identifying butterfly species is knowing their caterpillar host plants. Adult butterflies will lay eggs on or near their host plants so their caterpillars can feed on the leaves when they emerge.

Butterfly Family Caterpillar Host Plants
Swallowtails Citrus, parsley, carrot, fennel, rue
Whites & Sulphurs Clover, alfalfa, vetch, cabbage
Monarchs Milkweed
Fritillaries Violets, passionflower
Brushfoots Snapdragon, plantain, hopvine

If you find caterpillars on or damage to certain host plants, it’s a good bet that butterflies using those plants are in the area. Documenting this can validate your identification if you later see the adult butterfly.

Pay Attention to Time of Year

Knowing the flight times of different butterfly species can help you zero in on probable IDs. While some butterflies may be seen year-round in certain regions, others only appear during certain seasons:

Butterfly Type Flight Time
Swallowtails Spring through fall
Sulphurs & Whites Spring through summer
Monarchs Summer through fall migration
Fritillaries Summer
Anglewings Spring and summer

Keep records of the dates and locations you see different butterflies. Over time, you’ll start to notice when certain species appear each year in your area.

Use a Field Guide

Using a butterfly field guide is one of the best ways to identify unknown butterflies. Good field guides will include detailed descriptions, photographs, ranges, flight times, and caterpillar hosts to help you match an unknown butterfly to known species. Here are some recommended field guides:

  • Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America
  • Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies
  • Stokes Butterfly Book: The Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardening, Identification, and Behavior

Search your field guide by characteristics like size, color, flight time, or region to find likely matches. Pay close attention to wing markings which are unique to each species. Matching photographs of your unknown butterfly to guide photos is often the best way to make an ID.

Take Close-Up Photographs

Taking clear, close-up photographs of an unidentified butterfly can help a lot in eventually determining its species. Make sure to get shots of the upper and lower wing surfaces as well as side profiles showing key physical features. You can then compare your photos against field guide pictures to find a match.

Posting your mystery butterfly pictures online can also help get suggestions from knowledgeable individuals. Be sure to include details on location, date, time, and any behavior observed. The more context provided, the easier it will be for others to offer identification assistance.

Catch and Release for Closer Inspection

If you are having trouble identifying a butterfly from a distance, you may need to get closer. Use a butterfly net to temporarily catch the butterfly so you can inspect it up close before releasing it again unharmed. This brief handling shouldn’t injure the butterfly but will allow you to see key details.

When catching butterflies:

  • Approach slowly and gently to avoid startling it into flight.
  • Wait for the butterfly to land and rest its wings before netting.
  • Scoop quickly but smoothly with the net to capture it.
  • Handle carefully using both hands to support the wings and body.
  • Take photos and notes, then release within a minute.

Releasing a caught butterfly is just as important as careful capture. Gently open your hands or the net so the butterfly can voluntarily fly off undamaged. Quick catch and release allows closer inspection without harming these delicate creatures.

Consider Hiring a Butterfly Expert

If you are still struggling to identify your butterfly after consulting guides and online resources, consider hiring a professional lepidopterist. These butterfly experts offer identification services and can definitively pinpoint your species.

The Association for Butterflies works to connect people with skilled lepidopterists who can provide identification assistance. You simply send detailed photos and information, and within a few days they will get back to you with the species name. Hiring an expert is the best option when you need a definitive ID for an unknown butterfly.

Practice Makes Perfect!

Identifying butterflies takes patience and practice. The more time you spend observing and studying butterflies in the field and the relevant identification resources, the faster you will be able to recognize different species.

Pay close attention to wing pattern variations, even among the same species. Keep a nature journal with descriptions, sketches, photos and notes from each butterfly encounter. Refer back to this to sharpen your identification skills over time. With regular practice, you’ll soon be spotting and naming common backyard butterflies at a glance.

So grab your net and field guide, head outside, and start logging those butterfly sightings. Before you know it, you’ll be a butterfly identification expert in your own right! The more you learn about these amazing insects, the more you’ll want to know.


Identifying butterflies is part observation and part sleuthing. Noticing key physical traits, behaviors, flight patterns and habitat preferences will give you vital clues to pin down the species. Photos, field guides, timing, and location details will help narrow down the many possibilities. With practice examining butterflies and consulting resources, identification will become easier. Soon you’ll be able to appreciate not just the beauty of these insects, but also their incredible diversity. So get out there, study those butterflies, and discover the wonders of lepidoptera in your own backyard!