Butterfly spotting, part 1: common butterflies in the garden

I must sound like a broken record. In most of my blog posts, I begin with a variation of: “Even though our native plantings are only a few years old, I see more insects/birds each year, and a greater diversity of insect/bird species.” Here I go again — in 2019, I saw so many butterflies, including ones I had never seen before.

There were multiple butterflies in our garden almost every day. They were around so often that I even stopped running outside with the camera every time someone shouted ‘BUTTERFLY!’ At times, I felt like a Disney princess with the butterflies fluttering around me as I worked outside. In the future, I may have to start weeding in a ball gown.

The most common butterflies were American and Painted Ladies, Black and Giant Swallowtails, Monarchs, and of course non-native Cabbage Whites. They seem particularly easy to attract in the garden by including their caterpillar food plants (called host plants), and a variety of nectar plants for the adult butterflies.

American Lady butterflies

American Ladies like open spaces with low vegetation, like our mini-meadow and hedgerow. The first generation lays eggs in spring on Pussytoes varieties and Pearly Everlasting. These native plants both have grey, fuzzy leaves, and small, but interesting white flowers. The caterpillars make distinctive webbed enclosures for protection from predators. Once an enclosure is too full of frass (poop), they build a new webbed hide-out. There were many caterpillars on my clumps of Pearly Everlasting, as well as a few on the Field Pussytoes I use as ‘living mulch’ in sunny areas.

An American Lady butterfly resting on top of leaf litter, and being photo-bombed by an ant. (May 22, 2019)
An American Lady butterfly laying eggs on Pearly Everlasting. (June 9, 2019)
This American Lady butterfly caterpillar has left its host plant (Pearly Everlasting, in behind). Perhaps it made a chrysalis nearby. (June 30, 2019)

Painted Lady butterflies

Painted Lady butterflies aren’t as fussy eaters, using up to 100 different plants as host plants, such as Thistles, Hollyhocks, and legumes. We found their caterpillars on Wild Lupines (a legume) growing in little pots on a table. This was a great vantage point for observing them, as well as for taking close-up photos.

A Painted Lady caterpillar hidden in its webbed enclosure. (July 13, 2019)
A more mature Painted Lady caterpillar on Wild Lupine leaves. (July 21, 2019)

American Lady and Painted Lady butterflies look very similar. BugGuide has a simple guide for distinguishing one from the other. I also think that Painted Ladies look more faded in colour than the American Ladies.

A migrating Painted Lady butterfly sipping nectar from Brazilian Verbena flowers. (September 12, 2019)

Some people assume that Painted Ladies are small Monarchs. While they’re both orange and black, Painted Ladies are smaller and have larger white spots. Since both butterflies migrate at the same time in late summer, we do often found them together drinking nectar from the same flowers.

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies also frequented the garden this summer. They use some common non-native herbs as host plants, such as Dill, Fennel, Rue, and Parsley. They also use some invasive weeds, namely Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Parsnip, as host plants. This might explain why there are so many of them around.

A Black Swallowtail drinking nectar from Purple Coneflowers. (July 28, 2019)

Male and Female Black Swallowtails look quite different on the inside of their wings — the males have more yellow spots, whereas the females have more blue — but I can’t tell the difference from the outside of their wings. For identification tips, see this University of Wisconsin-Madison page, or this University of Florida page.

A tattered, female Black Swallowtail butterfly in our mini-meadow. (July 28, 2019)

The caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies are sometimes mistaken for Monarch caterpillars because they both have black, yellow, and white stripes. Monarch caterpillars are only found on Milkweed plants, while Black Swallowtail caterpillars are not found on Milkweed.

A young (early instar) Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Rue. The Rue has dense, shrubby foliage that helps the caterpillars remain hidden. (June 30, 2019)
An older Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Dill. (August 3, 2019)
A big Black Swallowtail cat’ on Curly Parsley. I think the crinkled leaves of Curly Parsley provide better hiding spots for the caterpillars, making them less vulnerable to predators. (August 27, 2017)

Giant Swallowtail butterflies

Giant Swallowtails are a spectacular sight, with a wingspan of up to 6 1/2-inches, and a very graceful flight. While they drink nectar from flowers, however, they are ridiculously frantic; perhaps they are so big that they have to hover while they drink. Starting in mid-summer, Giant Swallowtail butterflies began visiting our back garden for nectar. The preferred my brightest, gaudiest flowers in our mini-meadow.

Although I had planted a few Giant Swallowtail host plants, 2 Hop trees and a clump of Rue, we never found any caterpillars on them.

A Giant Swallowtail drinking nectar from Brazilian Verbena. (August 20, 2019)
Here, our first Giant Swallowtail guest only drank nectar from Red Valerian flowers. (June 28, 2019)
Later visitors gravitated to the bright ‘Red Riding Hood’ phlox cultivar, ignoring all the other flowers. (August 13, 2019)(Sorry for the blurry phone photo.When I’m in a panic to take insect pictures, I use whatever is handy.)

Monarch butterflies

I have never seen so many Monarchs in the garden before; they were drinking nectar, basking, roosting, mating, and laying eggs. You can find more about ‘our’ Monarchs in my past blog post A great summer for Monarchs.

The last Monarch passing through our garden before heading south. This ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod was my last goldenrod to bloom and was popular with lots of insects. (October 2, 2019)

Even more butterflies

Well, I saw so many butterflies in the garden this summer, that I can’t fit them all into a reasonable-sized blog post. This is a good problem to have! In my next post, I’ll show you some of the new butterflies I spotted, and share tips for butterfly watching.

2 thoughts on “Butterfly spotting, part 1: common butterflies in the garden

  1. Oh my what a stunning array of butterflies visiting your garden and enjoyable post to read. I live in Tasmania, and I have been planting many things for the butterflies, birds, wild life to come into my garden, and I can watch them. I don’t see many different butterflies though I keep planting more plants and letting some weeds grow to entice them into my garden.


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