By Julie Hart
Summer is a great time for watching butterflies, and with a little patience and persistence you can learn to identify these fantastic flutterers as they flit around your flowers! A typical butterfly life cycle is less than two months: they hatch from eggs and then spend a week or two as larvae (caterpillars), then metamorphose into a chrysalis, where they hang out (literally) for a week or so and then emerge as adults. Adult butterflies live for about two weeks, flitting from bloom to bloom, feeding on the nectar and fruits of our local flora and serving as important pollinators.
Males and females can look completely different, often with considerable variation in pattern and colors within a single species. The upper and undersides of their wings are also often strikingly different. Butterflies are easiest to see in flight, when the brightly-colored upper-sides of the wings are visible. At rest, the butterfly may fold its wings together, showing
the more muted coloration of their wings’ undersides that serve as camouflage against predators.
Here are some of the butterfly Families common to our area. You’ll notice that the different Families have distinctive shapes or coloration, which will help you identify them, even when you can’t get very close!
SWALLOWTAILS (Papilionidae) Generally large with a wingspan of four to five inches, these brightly-colored butterflies are distinguished by a long flaring tail similar in shape to a barn swallow’s tail feathers. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) (left) and the Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) (right) are among the most striking butterflies found in the Dutchess County area.
WHITES AND SULPHURS (Pieridae) Most butterflies in this Family are white, yellow or yellowish-green. With a wingspan of only two inches, they are on the smaller side and can be found in almost any type of open space, including meadows, fields, gardens, roadsides and even lawns. Keep an eye out for the Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) (left) and the Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) (right), which can often be spotted in your own garden!
GOSSAMER WINGS (Lycaenidae) Butterflies of the Gossamer Wing Family are also small, with a wingspan that is usually around one inch. Often brightly-colored, these butterflies fold their wings when at rest, displaying their dull-colored undersides and making them difficult to see. The blazing orange American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) (left) and the brilliant blue Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) (right) are examples of this colorful family.
BRUSH-FOOTS (Nymphalidae) This large and diverse Family of butterflies is so named for their foremost pair of legs, which are not fully formed, leaving them with only two pairs of legs for walking. Brush-footed butterflies generally have a wingspan between two to three inches and many are brightly-colored and boldly-patterned, like the iconic Monarch! Also in this family are the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) (left) and the Common Wood-Nymph (Cercyonis pegala) (right), whose names are a good indicator of the great variability in this family.