Learn the 6 Butterfly Families

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Learn the 6 Butterfly Families

Boy looking at a butterfly.
How do you identify a butterfly? Start by learning the 6 butterfly families. Getty Images/E+/Judy Barranco

Even people who dislike bugs can warm up to butterflies. Sometimes called flying flowers, butterflies come in all colors of the rainbow. Whether you've created a butterfly habitat to attract them or just encounter them during your outdoor activities, you've probably wanted to know the name of the butterflies you've observed. 

Identifying butterflies begins with learning the six butterfly families. The first five families – swallowtails, brush-foots, whites and sulphurs, gossamer-wings, and metalmarks – are called the true butterflies. The last group, the skippers, is sometimes considered separately.

 

 

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Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)

Swallowtail butterfly.
You can usually recognize a swallowtail butterfly by the "tails" on its hind wings. Flickr user xulescu_g (CC by SA license)

When someone asks me how to learn to identify butterflies, I always recommend starting with the swallowtails. You're probably already familiar with some of the more common swallowtails, like the black swallowtail or perhaps one of the tiger swallowtails.

The common name "swallowtail" refers to the tail-like appendages on the hindwings of many species in this family. Should you see a medium to large butterfly with these tails on its wings, you are almost certainly looking at a swallowtail of some kind. Keep in mind that a butterfly without these tails could still be a swallowtail, as not all members of the family Papilionidae have this feature.

Swallowtails also boast wing colors and patterns that make species identification fairly easy. Though about 600 Papilionidae species live worldwide, less than 40 inhabit North America.

 

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Brush-footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)

Checkerspot butterfly.
Many familiar butterflies, like this checkerspot, are brush-footed butterflies. Flickr user Dean Morley (CC by SA license)

The brush-footed butterflies comprise the largest family of butterflies, with some 6,000 species described worldwide. Just over 200 species of brush-footed butterflies occur in North America.

Many members of this family appear to have just two pairs of legs. Take a closer look, however, and you will see the first pair is there, but reduced in size. Brush-foots use these small legs to taste their food.

Many of our most common butterflies belong to this group: monarchs and other milkweed butterflies, crescents, checkerspots, peacocks, commas, longwings, admirals, emperors, satyrs, morphos, and others.

 

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Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae)

White butterfly.
Most white or yellow butterflies you see belong to the family Pieridae. Flickr user S. Rae (CC license)

Although you might be unfamiliar with their names, you've probably seen some whites and sulphurs in your backyard. Most species in the Pieridae family have pale white or yellow wings with markings in black or orange. They're small to medium butterflies. Whites and sulphurs have three pairs of walking legs, unlike the brush-foots with their shortened front legs.

Worldwide, whites and sulphurs are abundant, with as many as 1,100 species described. In North America, the family checklist includes about 75 species.

Most whites and sulphurs have limited ranges, living only where legumes or cruciferous plants grow. The cabbage white is much more widespread, and probably the most familiar member of the group.

 

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Gossamer-winged Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae)

Spring azure butterfly.
Gossamer-winged butterflies, like this blue, are a large and diverse family of butterflies. Flickr user Peter Broster (CC license)

Butterfly identification gets trickier with the family Lycaenidae. The hairstreaks, blues, and coppers are collectively known as the gossamer-winged butterflies. Most are quite small, and in my experience, quick. They're difficult to catch, tricky to photograph, and consequently a challenge to identify.

The name "gossamer-winged" refers to the sheer appearance of the wings, which are often streaked with bright colors. Look for tiny butterflies that flash in the sun, and you'll find members of the family Lycaenidae.

Hairstreaks live mainly in the tropics, while blues and coppers can be found most often throughout the temperate zones.

 

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Metalmarks (Family Riodinidae)

Metalmark butterfly.
Metalmarks are named for the metallic spots on their wings. Flickr user Robb Hanawacker (Public domain)

Metalmarks are small to medium in size, and live primarily in the tropics. Only a few dozen of the 1,400 species in this family inhabit North America. As you might expect, metalmarks get their name from the metallic-looking spots that often adorn their wings. 

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Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)

Skipper butterfly.
Skippers are sometimes classified separately from the true butterflies. Getty Images/Westend61

As a group, skippers are easy to differentiate from other butterflies. Compared to most any other butterfly, a skipper has a robust thorax that may make it seem more like a moth. Skippers also have different antennae than other butterflies. Unlike the "clubbed" antennae of butterflies, those of skippers end in a hook.

The name "skippers" describes their movement, a quick, skipping flight from flower to flower. Though showy in their manner of flight, skippers tend to be drab in color. Most are brown or gray, with white or orange markings.

Worldwide, over 3,500 skippers have been described. The North American species list includes about 275 known skippers, with the bulk of them living in Texas and Arizona.