Butterflies and moths in our garden
other wildlife in our garden
Butterflies are the most popular visitors in most gardens, for sure. Until
recently, I would just smile as a butterfly skipped by, and maybe follow it
until it disappeared out of sight. But now that I'm armed with a camera,
butterflies beware! I've gotten a lot of help from the friendly people at
garden forum identifying the various species featured here. Another
good resource is the
USGS Butterflies of North America website, and of course the invaluable
help from the folks at Bugguide.net.
Most moths are rather non-descript
and fly at night - so no photos of those. But there are a few that'll make
you take notice quick! Until I started paying attention to my garden's
wildlife, I had very little idea what distinguishes butterflies from moths. Friendly
webbers pointed me to a
nice little page with some basic information.
Butterflies and moths go through a full metamorphosis. Some pictures of
caterpillars, their larval life stage, are included on my
The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is probably the most
famous of the bunch. The photos here document my first sighting of one of
these impressive butterflies in our Pennsylvania garden. On one sunny day
in late July, there it was, gracefully dancing around the pond and the swamp
milkweeds that surrounded it.
Viceroys are monarch lookalikes. Scientists still argue over the
evolutionary purpose of the resemblance of the butterflies, which are not
closely related species. We just like both of them, each on its own terms. It
so happens that we spotted the viceroy one year before the monarch shown above,
one day in mid-September. We were charmed by a visit by this graceful butterfly,
which spent about fifteen minutes visiting our patio and pond area, and
was not the least bit shy. I loved its gliding, almost floating motion.
Viceroys use willows as caterpillar hosts. Although our arctic willow (pictured
at left) was
among the plants visited, I didn't notice any egg-laying going on - heck,
I don't even know if this was a female...
Pennsylvania, Sept 2004
One year, all of a sudden, we saw quite a few of these beautiful, large
Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus). This is the first one
to sit still long enough for a picture. I'm glad it picked the verbena in
the cutting garden to do so, because it makes for a pretty background. We
hope to see many more of these. With a little luck, we'll get to see their
really cool caterpillars, with fake eyes, as well. I'll be on the lookout.
Pennsylvania, August 2005
Having moved to Houston, it's only natural that I'd start seeing gulf
fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) in the garden. For some time, I
would see their cheerful orange shapes flitting about the garden, but they
would never sit still. Finally, one was enticed by our Salvia 'Hot Lips'
for long enough that I managed to snap a few pictures. I was surprised to
see the striking color patterns of the bottom side of its hindwings, which
isn't really apparent when the butterly is in flight. Gulf fritillaries are
common in the southern reaches of the US. The one pictured here, seen in
early October, was likely in the middle of its southward migration to
Florida, where it will overwinter in a frost-free climate. Larval host
plants are passionflowers, which our garden doesn't offer (yet). Still, in
late summer and early fall, these are the butterflies we see most in our new
Texas, October 2017
Azures are smaller butterflies. Frustrating for amateur photographers like me:
in flight, they display their sky-blue upper wings, but when they sit down they
fold their wings, to show their bluish gray underwings. Even those possess a
delicate beauty, complemented by the black-and-white antennae, which are hard
to discern from casual observation. The one photographed here, feasting on a
rattlesnake master flower, is most likely the summer azure (Celastrina
According to some information I found, the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
prefers bird poop and tree sap over flowers, but I guess it had to settle for
Another nice encounter with a red admiral, this one enjoying the nectar from our
The buckeye (Junonia coenia) may look very scary to its would-be predators, but it's a beauty
in the eyes of us humans. This one was sunning itself on our concrete front
walk in late August.
Orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme, identified by the slight orange
coloration on the forewings)
getting its nectar on a Verbena hastata alongside our pond.
This clouded sulphur (Colias philodice) was nice enough to sit for a
Another sulphur, species unknown, was enjoying our knautia arvensis one morning.
Banded hairstreak (Satyrium calanus), skipping from flower
to flower on a coreopsis in late June. Not a butterfly I see much, perhaps
because it's quite inconspicuous most of the time. There's one generation per
year, flying from June through August. Its host trees include oak, hickory,
And here's its relative, the gray hairstreak (Strymon
melinus), feasting on Joe Pye weed. I've only seen this species once.
Just when I thought I'd encountered all butterflies that
were likely to visit our garden, this meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona)
comes along to feast on our echinaceas. Its larval host plant is viola, which
our garden has in abundance (V. sororia, to be precise), so perhaps its offspring
is already waiting in the wings, ready to fly out reinforcements in a few weeks.
I wouldn't mind that at all – I was quite pleased with this one's brief
Pennsylvania, July 2015
A beautiful spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
came to visit our garden one day, and just couldn't help but keep coming back
to our perennial pea. I didn't mind having ample opportunity to observe and
photograph its pretty colors and figure.
Pennsylvania, September 2005
This black swallowtail gal (Papilio polyxenes) had most likely
just emerged, and wasn't too comfortable flying yet. After I took lots of
pictures, bug-boy Ben managed to have her climb onto his hand and carried Ms
Beautiful around for a bit. The first butterfly photos of the year (2006)!
Pennsylvania, June 2006
More than ten years later, we're establishing a new garden in Texas, and
wouldn't you know it – there's black swallowtails here too! Although I've
seen several species by now, this boy was the first large butterfly I managed to capture on
digifilm (and not very well, either: he had to flutter hard to keep his
balance in the stiff breeze that was blowing in our back yard). It's visits
like this that remind me why I put so much sweat into building a colorful
Texas, September 2017
I've also had the pleasure of meeting its offspring in its various
stages. One of them is this colorful caterpillar,
chomping away on our rue.
Above and to the right are two earlier larval stages of the same black
swallowtail species. The one at top was perhaps an inch long, the one at right
was real little at well under half an inch long. Isn't
it amazing how many different appearances they take on during their life span?
I found these on a parsley and a lovage plant in early to mid-June.
Pennsylvania, June 2014
I spotted this empty shell of a chrysalis one late-October day, perched high
on our back-yard fence. I have no idea how long it had been there, or when it
was vacated, but it was certainly an impressive structure. I was told it had
belonged to a swallowtail butterfly; given my observations around the
Houston garden, that makes it likely a black swallowtail. Next time around, I
hope to spot the pupa before the butterfly emerges!
Texas, October 2017
What's that silly little snakelet doing on my satsuma orange tree?
Turns out it's a caterpillar of the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
engaged in its elaborate mimicry. He never had me convinced he was a real
snake, but perhaps it works on some of his potential predators. In any case,
I'm happy to give up a few leaves of our satsuma for the benefit of a magnificent
butterfly (citrus relatives are indeed its larval host) – I hope to see
its adult form sometime soon.
Texas, April 2018
The cabbage white (Pieris rapae) is the butterfly we see most in our gardens. Their caterpillars
are an agricultural pest, but the adults add a cheerful movement to our gardens
throughout summer. This one is sitting on some stock (matthiola) foliage, drinking in the
wonderful scent of the nearby flowers.
With most butterflies, I get only the undersides of the wings, or only the top
sides (depending on how they like to sit down), but cabbage whites will do both,
so here's another pic.
Making cabbage-white babies. The female is on the left.
I've seen this one only once, on the patio screen door right outside of
our kitchen, one summer evening as dusk was approaching. It's a hackberry
emperor (Asterocampa celtis), a butterfly known for its flighty
behavior, not sitting still for pictures very often. I don't know where its
host tree is, because I'm not aware of any hackberries in the neighborhood.
Skippers (family Hesperiidae) are considered butterflies, but they
are somewhat separate from their Papilionoidea brethren. In general, they are
smaller and more skittish in flight, and most of the ones I've seen (with some
exceptions as shown below) have more muted colors than those flashy big
butterflies. So I keep my collections of skippers a bit separate, below.
The checkered skipper (the one pictured here is probably Pyrgus communis)
is a smaller butterfly - not much more than an inch in wingspan. Most of the
ones I encounter are very flighty, sunning themselves for a few seconds at a
time at perches near ground level, and never stopping for a photo op. But this
one, found on a cool October morning, was much more docile, allowing me to
shoot close-up photos and even sitting on my finger for a few seconds.
Pennsylvania, October 2004
Silver-spotted skippers (Epargyreus clarus) were among the most
common butterflies we'd see in our Pennsylvania garden. They normally
prefer their flowers in the blue and red spectra, but the one pictured here
just couldn't resist our mountain mint.
Pennsylvania, August 2004
All of a sudden, in late July, Peck's skippers (Polites peckius)
would descend upon our Allentown garden. They'd be all over! Although
diminutive, they are fast fliers.
Pennsylvania, July 2004
Pennsylvania, July 2005
This skipper is most likely a wild indigo duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae),
although baptisia was not among the many plants it visited when I found it
fluttering through the garden.
Pennsylvania, August 2004
My first skipper sighting since moving to Texas, this clouded skipper
(Lerema accius) is a little brown job among its more colorful brethren,
but I was happy to spot it nonetheless. Its range, mostly the southeastern U.S.
and further south into the Americas, doesn't quite include our previous garden
in Pennsylvania, but it is quite similar in many respects to the skippers we
saw there, documented above. They started appearing in July, and were quite
plentiful by mid-August, continuing well into October. This one was nectaring at a salvia flower.
Texas, August 2017
When I first saw this irridescent beauty, I mistook it for a day-flying
moth, but soon learned it was in fact a long-tailed skipper (Urbanus
proteus). It occurs year-round here in Texas (and along the gulf coast and
Florida), while it flies in late summer and fall in other parts of the eastern
United States. Its caterpillars feed on plants in the bean family. I never did
see it in Pennsylvania, but have spotted it quite a few times in our Texas
garden. As the photo at right shows, the underwings have a much more muted
coloration, so that I don't always recognize individuals fluttering about as
this species. But whichever side of their wings they show, they're most welcome.
Texas, October 2017/November 2017
Just a few weeks after the first longtail sighting above,
two other longtails were darting around our lantanas on a warm Saturday
afternoon. While not quite as striking, I'm still happy that these white-striped
longtails (Chioides albofasciatus) chose to vist our garden. They range
from central America to the southwestern U.S. through to Louisiana, flying
from early spring to late fall. As with its cousin above, its larval hosts are
plants in the legume family.
Texas, October 2017
Sometimes it's hard to judge, when you spot a skipper flitting
about, if it's one you've seen before or a new species. I had no such trouble
with this fella: the firy skipper (Hylephila phyleus) is quite
distinctive, with its yellow-orange overtones, bold patterning, and smoothly
rounded hindwings. This member
of the grass skippers uses bermudagrass as one of its host plants, which should
make it quite happy in our neighborhood, with acres of the stuff. Its range
includes a broad swath of the eastern and central U.S., but I had never spotted
it in Pennsylvania.
Texas, November 2017
From the dramatic to the barely noticeable, here are the moths I've managed
to take snapshots of through the years.
Supposedly, luna moths (Actias luna) are prevalent throughout the
Eastern U.S., but I've only ever seen one. On a sultry mid-July evening, Amy
spotted it in a shrub near our patio pond. It wasn't ready to fly yet (they
are night-flyers, and it was still fairly light out), so she allowed me to take
some photos. When night fell, she flew away suddenly, up up and over the house.
I hope she finds a moth fella to have kids with — after all, it's the
only thing she lives for: adult lunas live for just a week, fasting the whole
time (easy when you don't have a mouth), while seeking out opportunities to
mate and deposit their offspring eggs in suitable trees.
I didn't immediately recognize this as a moth - but it is one. Day-flying,
and sleek of form, it's a yellow-collared scape moth (Cisseps fulvicollis).
My most impressive moth
discovery was this snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), also known
as bumblebee moth, often listed among the hummingbird moths. This one was
resting on my hardy hibiscus (I found it while hunting for Japanese
beetles), and didn't mind me shooting a photo from up close.
And another clearwing, seen almost three years later to the day, this time
in full flight during a hot afternoon.
This handsomely patterned moth was enjoying the warmth of our pool cover when
I discovered it. Little did I know that it was the parent of an agricultural
pest: it's an armyworm moth (Pseudaletia unipuncta)!
Hardly eye-popping, but with a refined upside-down charm, this
is probably a woollybear moth
Burly guy in the grass - when flying, he showed his orange wings; when fully
folded, only a dull brown color. Not very shy, he crawled all over me and settled into my shirt
collar. An ID inquiry at BugGuide suggests that this is a large yellow underwing
moth, Noctua pronuba.
Seen from a few feet away, this guy looked like a piece of leaf debris on
a corn leaf. A little closer up, it was clearly a moth, with a triangular
jet-fighter shape (that photo didn't turn out). This photo shows the side view,
with odd appendages and dull globe eyes. It's probably a Palthis moth.
We found this one on the outside of our kitchen patio doors one evening,
looking very much like it was Trying To Tell us something.
It's definitely a plume moth, and most likely the morning glory plume moth,
Emmelina monodactyla. I think that species name means "one-fingered",
but I don't know how to count moth fingers! The larvae of this species feed on
plants in Convolvulaceae, so I may have my bindweed infestation to
thank for this moth's visit.
One hot summer afternoon, I went to look at a hypertufa
trough that was just about ready to be planted, when I spotted an excellently
camouflaged moth sleeping on the side of the trough. It was quite content to
let me take a bunch of photos right in that spot, but was annoyed when I
prodded it, fluttering off to a nearby flagstone where it settled down again.
That's where I took this picture, which shows the antennae (they were hidden in all
the scruffiness in the original position).
I found that this is a tubeworm moth (Acrolophus arcanella), which is native to a large swath
of the eastern U.S. Its larvae feed on roots of clover, which is certainly
present in our garden. It probably figured the trough would be a nice quiet place
for a nap...
First moth picture from Texas – this big moth was perched right outside
our front door, sitting perfectly still in the sunshine. It is a mournful
sphinx (Enyo lugubris), which occurs in tropical America and southern
North America, occasionally venturing as far north as the midwest and New
York. Even though this one sat still for me to take its picture, it does fly
during the day. Its larval hosts are plants in the grape family, adults feed
on flower nectar. It reportedly makes a whirring sound when flying, but I
haven't witnessed that yet.
I spotted this little beauty as it was sunning itself one afternoon on a
fig leaf. This is most likely a Pannaria wave moth (Leptostales pannaria),
in the family of geometrid moths. It is found in the southeastern United States
Visitors to this page have left the following comments
|Jeff Parrack||Jun 06, 2006||OK, Mr. Really Good Caterpillar and Butterfly Photographer Man:
Where can I get some Black Swallowtail caterpillars?
We loved them in our parsely some years ago, and now I want more.|
I don't know of any sources - but GardenWeb has a butterfly gardening forum where you can probably find some good information.
|Meredith||Feb 28, 2007||I noticed you said you'd like to see the caterpillars of the Tiger swallowtail, and their fake eyes. The tiger swallowtail caterpillar fake eyes aren't half the size of the spicebush swallowtails, their the ones with the really cool big fake eyes. I had some this past summer on my Lindera benzoin (Spicebush) that I planted just for them! That is the only plant they'll eat besides sassafrass. The tigers feed on a greater variety of host plants but probably the most common to find them on is Prunus serotina (Wild Cherry). I love your website by the way!|
|ashley I.||Mar 27, 2007||do you have any pictures of the pink-spotted hawkmoth,or the long-tailed skipper,and of the zebra swallowtail? Also how do you know if a butterfly is a boy or a girl? and one more question how does mating occur with butterflies and moths?|
All butterflies that I've been lucky enough to take a photo of are already on my page. You can always visit BugGuide for a treasure trove of insect photos. They often have male and female photos, which could answer your second question. Mating is usually back-to-back, as shown in one of the cabbage white photos on this page.
|Celosia||Jul 30, 2007||Hi, great site, lovely to read. And I think I've identified the moth that I've been seeing a lot of lately as the Large Yellow Underwing. I love photography, I've just been out in my garden photographing bees and butterflies. Your photos are great, which camera do you use?|
Still using my trusty point-and-shoot, albeit one chosen for good macro capability: the Canon A95 (probably long since superceded by something flashier with even more megapixels that I don't need!)
|Michele||Aug 14, 2007||Beautiful pictures, I enjoyed them very much, and I learned ALOT! Thank you. Blessings.|
|Shelley||Aug 30, 2007||Gorgeous shots! Beautiful. I'll be revisiting this site - no question!|
|erica||Sep 10, 2007||I got Black Swallowtails to show up on their own in my gardens and leave their caterpillars behind by planting dill. They even managed to find me again when I moved across town and started my gardens over.|
|Olivia||Sep 20, 2007||I have found a snowberry clearwing who had trouble flying. I brought it in my house and fed it mushed up apple. Unfortunately, it refused it's meal.|
|Robin||Oct 07, 2007||The crazy weather we have had this spring/summer/fall of 2007 has not affected the butterfly/moth population in my area. In fact, this year has so far been one of the better years. I am a flower/plant merchandiser at a national hardware store and have been absolutely delighted with the variety and amount of butterflies, moths and hummingbirds I have seen, including hummingbird and bumblebee moths. Two flowers in particular, tall garden phlox and petunias, seemed to attract the majority of hummingbird and bumblebee moths. Of course there are many other flowers and plants that I have noticed were better than others as far as butterflies/moths and hummingbirds are concerned but I won't take up all your space!
|Marcy||Dec 14, 2007||Great picture of the clearwing in midair. Once in a lifetime chance!|
|Kanak||Apr 20, 2008||Loved going through the pics, so beautiful. A wealth of information on every
segment.A site that I'll definitely keep visiting!|
|Riley P||Apr 27, 2008||i found a bumblbee moth on a tree, but didnt know what it was, untill i saw it on theis site! it's so cool, we caught it in a racquet ball glasses box! |
|Jaron||Jun 02, 2008||I found a bumblebee moth today while i was watering the garden. I've never seen them before and then i did some research and this site. So, now i know.|
|janet||Jun 08, 2008||the photos are simply beutiful|
|KEITH||Aug 05, 2008||BEAUTIFUL CLOSE-UP SHOTS OF THESE BEAUTIFUL CREATURES! THIS WILL MOTIVATE US TO BUY BUTTERFLY & MOTH FLOWERS. WE WANT A YARD FULL OF ALL THESE. WE'LL VISIT THIS SITE AGAIN FOR SURE!|
|Marjorie||Oct 05, 2008||Really great pictures|
|email@example.com||Oct 24, 2008||I have been following the different varieties of butter flies and moths in my home town in South VA for last 4 years. I have photographed most of the ones on your site. I am impressed and I admit you got more!|
|bree||Mar 26, 2009||this is a very helpful page. but you need some more stuff on feeding and caring for moths. you might also like to think about adding some stuff about keeping them as pets. but other wise it a good page.|
|Tammy, Indianapolis, IN||Aug 16, 2010||Very helpful page and beautiful photos! I found what I was looking for right away--the Snowberry Clearwing. Very impressive in-flight photo! I saw this insect for the first time ever while watching butterflies fluttering around the wild flowers at a local dairy farm. If flies like a hummingbird, but is clearly an insect. I thought I would have trouble finding it online, but your page was the first and most helpful resource that I found! Thanks for the info and the beautiful images! :) |
|Joni, Dayton, Ohio||Aug 24, 2010||I was able to ID what I was seeing in my yard. Thank you for great pictures and descriptions. I had seen the hummingbird moth several times, but the color was different. With your photo, I was able to ID the bumble bee moth vs the hummingbird moth. Who knew there was a difference and I would see them at my butterfly bush. The hummingbirds like the bush as well. Looking for photo of a huge black with blue butterfly. I thought it was a black swallowtail, but wanted to confirm it.|
|Sandy, Mount Savage, MD||Aug 31, 2010||This is the first year I had butterfly bushes and the first that I had hummingbird moths. They are numerous and buzz my head frequently as do the bumble bees when I am tending the bushes. Do you know if the moths sting or bite? |
The moths are not equipped with any parts that could hurt you - unless they fly right into your eye, I guess that might hurt :)
|The Girl Who Needs To Know||Apr 24, 2011||Hi i need to know how to take care of a large yellow underwing larvae (as a pet).
I'm afraid insecticulture is not my forte - I just like to take their picture...
|elaine||May 26, 2011||You have the best butterfly photos! Thank you.|
|ssArner||Jun 01, 2011||Thank you so much for posting such beautiful pictures, and then writing a post for us to read!!! I will be coming back to this site many times!!! I have had a Hummingbird moth and a Bumblebee moth in my back yard, but not hardly any of the others. I will be watching!!!!!
|shirley||Jul 28, 2011||I have just found your site and what a great site.
I live in Western Australia,a beautiful country,if you have not been here you must visit some time,i will visit your site often, thanks for the lovely photoes.
|REX||Jul 30, 2011||I grew up in Alabama catching bumble bee moths in my hands. They do not sting the person catching them, but they often stung the kid who lost the bet...
|Lisa||Aug 05, 2011||Envious, yet inspired by your garden and photos, such a cool site, I will visit again :o)|
|Donna||Aug 17, 2011||Thanks for all the info - I've had armyworm moths for a couple of years, could not ID them and now I can thanks to you - they love to hide in my van and scare the heck out of me when I'm driving - I will now seek out what their caterpillars look like so I can get rid of the "bug"gers! Many thanks for a great site.|
|Haley Deerfield,Michigan||Aug 23, 2011||Thanks to your website we just identified this moth. we thought at first it was a baby hummingbird. Rob thank you so much for your help.|
|Kathy||Aug 24, 2011||Great site. I stumbled across your site looking for pictures of every stage of a hummingbird moth (from egg all the way up to the moth itself). I have some hummingbird moths around my house, and I recently discovered some sort of little creature living on the leaves where thwey hang out. I have been taking pics of every stage to see how this turns out. I hope they are hummingbird moths, but i'm not sure...I can't seem to find any pics on-line that resemble what I have.|
Try asking at bugguide.net – they are great at identifying insects in all their life stages. You'll need a good-quality photo to get useful help.
|John||May 27, 2012||It was fun to visit your site. I would like to do something like this.|
|Mary||Mar 05, 2013||I have a lot of tiny, maybe 1/2", pale green moths in my yard and am wondering if they're doing damage to plants. |
The moths certainly aren't, but their offspring may. I'm afraid I don't have the knowledge to identify your moths.
|Mike||Jun 29, 2017||I'm wondering about that "woolly bear moth" I have one like that i'm trying to identify but if you look up woolly bear moth on Google the picture don't match at all so pretty sure it isn't a woolly bear moth|
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