Butterflies of North America
Order Lepidoptera - Butterflies and Moths
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Live butterflies photographed in the wild at North American locations.

Northern Pearly-Eye taking sap from tree wound in early spring
Family Nymphalidae - Brushfoot Butterflies include approximately 3,000 species worldwide, of which 160 or so live in or visit North America. Their unifying characteristic is the reduced forelegs of both males and females. These vestigial forelegs give rise to the family's common name. The habit of holding the forelegs close to the body is shared with many other insects, including bumblebees, flies, bugs and beetles. Considering how many insects do this, there must be some hidden evolutionary advantage to the state of having 6 legs but hiding the front two most of the time.

Included in this family are admirals, fritillaries, checkerspots, crescentspots, anglewings, leafwings, painted ladies, and tortoiseshells. Includes Monarch Butterfly.
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Of the 165,000 known species of Lepidoptera worldwide, the vast majority are moths. Of the 12,000 species in America north of Mexico, only 760 are butterflies. All lepidopterans are covered with hairlike structures called setae, and the setae on the wings are flattened into tiny "scales," arranged like shingles on a roof; through pigmentation or optical diffraction they are responsible for the colors and patterns we admire so greatly in these gentle creatures [1].

Butterflies have two sets of wings, which they use for flight, courtship displays, avoiding predators, and regulating body temperature.  The arrangement of wing markings are one of the primary tools in butterfly identification. All butterflies possess a long, coiled proboscis they use to suck liquids from flowers, rotting fruit, dung, sap from wounded plants, or water from a convenient puddle (such activity being known as "puddling"). If you are ever fortunate enough to have a butterfly land on your skin and investigate with its tongue, you'll be startled to find it's like being poked with a tiny, sharp stick.

Family Papilionidae -- Swallowtail and Parnassian Butterflies include more than 600 species worldwide, fewer than 30 of these live in North America.

The true swallowtails, the most typical North American members of this family, are large, brightly colored butterflies with tailed hind wings. All North American swallowtails have somewhat spherical eggs. Most of the caterpillars have prominent eyespots. Swallowtail chrysalises resemble bits of leaf or wood.

I followed the tiger swallowtail pictured at right for an hour as she tirelessly fed on nectar in a great big patch of yellow flowers. Swallowtails are almost always beating their wings for balance while they hang from flower blossoms (the photo at right is rotated 90 degrees for clarity.) In those days I shot only available light, and consider myself extremely fortunate to have captured some good shots of this majestic and energetic butterfly.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
All lepidopterans undergo so-called "complete" metamorphosis, i.e., egg-larva-pupa-adult. Butterfly eggs are laid singly or in clusters on or near host plants that will provide nourishment for the voracious larva (caterpillar). In the case of the monarch butterfly, these host plants are all varieties of milkweed (Asclepias spp.), which provide the caterpillars with chemicals that make them distasteful to predators. This chemical deterrent persists throughout the pupa and adult stages.

Most butterfly larvae feed only on living plants; some moth species (e.g. the meal moth - Pyralis farinalis) will consume stored grains and cereal products, or dried fruit; others live on animal products, eating feathers or woolen cloth, even other insects [1]. You can find  an anatomical diagram and description of Lepidoptera larvae at our Milkweed Tussock Moth.


Cabbage White Butterfly Pieris rapae
Family Pieridae - Whites and Sulphurs
With a 1,100 species world wide and 58 in North America, pierid larvae are agricultural pests of leguminous and brassicaceous crops.

Most of these butterflies are shades of yellow, white, or pale green. There is often dramatic color variation between the sexes, seasonal, and even members of the same species. For all intents and purposes, the clouded and orange sulphurs, for instance, are generally spoken of as on species in the field, they being virtually impossible to tell apart, short of dissection.

Pierids can be extremely numerous here in the American Midwest. On August 1, 2005, I counted more than 200 Cabbage Whites in an area half the size of a basketball court at one forest preserve near Chicago. Clouded sulphurs were almost as numerous. As of 2011, I have never seen as many butterflies as in that banner year.

Family Lycaenidae - Gossamer-Wing Butterflies includes four groups: blues, coppers, hairstreaks and harvesters. There are only about 100 species in North America. These small butterflies hold their wings over their back when at rest. In most species, the males have greatly reduced forelegs not unlike the brushfoots, but the females have all six legs well-developed. Caterpillars of many hairstreaks and blues possess honeydew glands. Ants milk these caterpillars and in return, protect them from predators. The compact chrysalises are usually found in ground litter.

Gossamer wing coloring comes from two different types of scales: gray, brown and orange scales are pigmented, while blue, green, purple and copper colors derive from the selective light-refracting properties of the scales. The two blues pictured here are very common butterflies here in DuPage County near Chicago; the hairstreaks are fairly rare.

The eastern tailed blue butterfly at right is about the size of a U.S. dime.

Eastern-Tailed Blue Butterfly
The butterfly pupal stage is called a chrysalis; the hardened protective shell is revealed at the larva's final molt. Unlike their brethren, the moths, which usually spin their cocoons in protected places, chrysalides are usually exposed and attached to a leaf or twig by the tip of the abdomen; they hang upside down or suspended head-upward by a silken "girdle." [1] Within the chrysalis, the creature undergoes one of the most awe-inspiring changes in nature, emerging as an adult butterfly.
European Skipper Butterfly
Family Hesperiidae - Skipper Butterflies display many structural features of both moths and butterflies; stocky with a large head, widely spaced, hooked antennae, a chunky body and short wings, these smallish butterflies are sometimes rapid, erratic fliers.

The family is subdivided into 7 subfamilies: Hesperiinae (grass skippers),  Coeliadinae, Euschemoninae, Eudaminae (dicot skippers), Pyrginae (spreadwings),  Heteropterinae (monocot skippers), and Trapezitinae (found only in Oceania) [3].

Before I started photographing insects, I was completely unaware of these charming little butterflies. I have since come to appreciate their antics and admire their flying abilities. Skippers present a physical challenge to photogs - they rarely stay in one spot for more than a few moments, and they will weathervane you all day, never presenting their full profile while you follow them around a flower blossom.

Butterflies from around the world: These captive, live butterfly specimens were photographed at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Illinois and identified by Doug Taron, Curator of Biology, and founder of the Northern Illinois Butterfly Monitor Network.

Live butterfly exhibits have become very popular in the United States, for obvious reasons. Children love butterflies, adults love butterflies and museums find them easy to raise and maintain - everybody wins. This happy circumstance is also good for the wild butterflies - people who used to go into the rain forest and capture live butterflies, or plunder their eggs and chrysalises now can be set to work on butterfly farms, thereby sparing our wild populations, and providing much needed jobs for many impoverished regions.

Checkered Swallowtail
References
  1. Arthur Evans, National Wildlife Federation, "Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America"
  2. Wikipedia, "Microlepidoptera
  3. Tree of Life Web Project, "Hesperiidae"
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Order Lepidoptera, which contains both butterflies and moths, includes at least 125,000 known species including 12,000 in North America. Butterflies are revered for their brightly colored wings and pleasing association with fair weather and flowers.
Learn to identify many of the American Midwest's common species through descriptions and large diagnostic photos of live, wild specimens.
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