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What looks like a monarch butterfly but yellow?

Monarch butterflies are iconic insects known for their distinct orange and black wings. However, once in a while, you may spot a butterfly that looks almost identical to a monarch, except its wings are yellow instead of orange. So what butterflies resemble monarchs but are yellow in color?

Similarities Between Monarchs and Yellow Mimics

There are a few different butterflies that can be mistaken for monarchs due to their similar size, wing shape, and flight patterns. Like monarchs, these yellow insects have long, narrow wings that are angled back when at rest. In flight, their wing flaps create a distinctive floating, gliding motion. Additionally, they are all medium-sized butterflies with wingspans between 3 to 4 inches.

These monarchs look-alikes include the viceroy, queen, and tiger swallowtail butterflies. Although they appear nearly identical while flying, upon closer inspection there are some subtle distinctions between them and true monarchs.

The Viceroy Butterfly

The viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is often considered the monarchs’ most convincing double. Viceroys closely mimic the coloration pattern of monarchs with their tawny-orange wings rimmed with black veins and borders. However, the main difference is viceroys have a horizontal black line that runs across the lower wings, while monarchs do not have this stripe.

Viceroys are found throughout most of North America in habitats similar to monarchs. They have a wingspan of 3-3.5 inches and primarily feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion, and animal dung. Viceroys emerge in spring and summer and go through multiple generations per year. They overwinter as larvae or chrysalises.

The Queen Butterfly

The queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) is another imposter of the monarch. In fact, queens were once considered a subspecies of monarchs until they were reclassified as their own species. One key difference is queens have darker orange wings compared to the brighter hue of monarchs. Queens also have a distinct white spot on their front wings that monarchs lack.

Queens live in the southern regions of North America, Central America, and South America. They prefer open areas like fields, gardens, and forests clearings. Adults feed on nectar from flowers while larvae eat milkweed plants. Queens are multivoltine, having two to six generations per year depending on the climate. They overwinter as breeding adults in Mexico and coastal California.

The Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

The tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) belongs to the swallowtail family, but its yellow wings allow it to masquerade as a monarch when viewed from afar. One distinguishing feature is tiger swallowtails have black “tiger stripes” markings along the edges of their wings. They are also larger than monarchs with about a 5 inch wingspan.

These widespread butterflies occur throughout North America except the far north. They inhabit deciduous woodlands, fields, gardens, and parks. Adults feed on flower nectar while caterpillars eat leaves of wild cherry, cottonwood, and other trees. Tiger swallowtails produce two to three generations per year and overwinter as pupae.

Differences Between Monarchs and Mimics

While viceroys, queens, and tiger swallowtails appear nearly identical to monarchs when in flight, there are some subtle differences between them:

Butterfly Wing Color Size Stripes/Spots? Range
Monarch Bright orange 3-4 inches No stripes or spots Throughout N. America
Viceroy Tawny orange 3-3.5 inches 1 black stripe across lower wings Throughout N. America
Queen Dark orange 3-4 inches 1 white spot on forewings S. North America to S. America
Tiger Swallowtail Pale yellow 4-5 inches Black tiger stripes on wings Throughout most of N. America

As you can see, monarchs are uniquely identified by their vibrant orange wings lacking stripes or spots. The other species have subtle variations in color and markings that differentiate them upon closer inspection.

Why the Mimicry?

It’s thought that viceroys, queens, and tiger swallowtails have evolved to mimic monarchs for protective purposes. Many birds have learned that monarchs are distasteful prey due to the toxins they accumulate from milkweed. By resembling monarchs, the mimics may gain some protective advantage against predation.

Additionally, monarchs are extremely abundant butterflies, so resembling them is simply a good strategy to blend into the environment. When there are many monarchs around, a predator may be unable to distinguish the mimics at a quick glance.

How to Tell Them Apart

Telling yellow monarch mimics apart from true monarchs is easiest when you can closely examine their wings. Look for any stripes, spots, or dramatic color variations. Also take note of their size and geographic location. With practice, you’ll get better at distinguishing the imposters from the real thing!

Here are some identification tips:

  • Monarchs have bright, vivid orange wings with no stripes or spots
  • Viceroys are smaller and have a black stripe cutting across the lower wings
  • Queens have darker orange wings with a distinct white dot on the forewings
  • Tiger swallowtails are larger and have black tiger striping on their yellow wings

Learning the subtle differences between these monarch mimics takes some patience. But being able to tell them apart is rewarding and will impress fellow butterfly enthusiasts!

Enjoying the Diversity of Mimics

While the mimicry can make butterfly identification tricky at times, it is also a testament to the incredible diversity and adaptations of these insects. We should appreciate the special wonders of both the monarchs and their imposters.

Next time you see a yellow butterfly that resembles a monarch, take a closer look and see if you can spot the subtle differences. Carefully examining their wings may reveal if it’s a viceroy, queen, tiger swallowtail, or perhaps even a faded monarch. Either way, you’ll be contributing to scientific knowledge about these amazing insects and their mimicry.


Monarch butterflies have several yellow-and-black winged imposters that mimic their iconic appearance. While viceroys, queens, and tiger swallowtails look nearly identical to monarchs when flying, upon closer inspection there are subtle differences in their size, wing color, and markings. Being able to distinguish monarchs from their mimics takes patience and practice, but doing so reveals the diversity and adaptations of these special butterflies. So next time you spot a yellow insect that resembles a monarch, take a closer look – it may not be exactly what it seems!