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Watchable Wildlife – Butterflies

Approximately 206 butterfly species can be found in Nebraska. They are readily seen during warm summer days with little wind. Typically, May to August are the best months for viewing, and you will do well looking in sunny exposed places with low plants. They are typically seen in greater abundance mid-morning to late afternoon and can be found in butterfly gardens, wetlands, woodlands, grasslands and even your backyard. The information below will help you identify several species of butterflies commonly found in Nebraska. More information about butterflies can be found at the following links:

Butterflies of Nebraska
Butterflies and moths of North America
Butterfly gardening

Monarch

The monarch butterfly is a well-known species. The upper side of the male is bright orange with wide black borders and black veins. The upper side of the female is orange-brown with wide black borders and black veins. The Viceroy butterfly is a mimic. The coloring and pattern of the monarch and viceroy wings are nearly identical. However the viceroy butterfly is smaller than the monarch. The viceroy butterfly benefits from the monarch’s bad reputation, but some viceroys are bad-tasting as well.

The monarch is found in a variety of habitats including fields, meadows, weedy areas, marshes, and roadsides.

Regal fritillary

The regal fritillary is a large butterfly that is smaller in size to the monarch butterfly. The upper side of the forewing is bright red-orange with black markings. The upper side of the hindwing is black with a row of white spots and on the wing edge is a row of spots that are orange in males and white in females. The underside of the forewing is orange with a band of white spots and a black fringe. The hindwing is dark greenish brown with white spots.

The regal fritillary is a Great Plains species associated with tallgrass prairies, meadows and pastures. The larvae feed on violets. The adults feed on a variety of flowers such as milkweeds, thistles, clover and purple coneflower. It can be found statewide in Nebraska, but is primarily in the eastern half of the state.

Butterfly survey

There is an urgent need to track regal fritillaries across their range over time to better understand and adjust conservation measures to be most effective. Thanks to the Wildlife Conservation Fund, a citizen science project was launched last year to monitor regal fritillaries, as well as monarchs, which are similar in appearance. Visit the monarch and regal fritillary survey page to learn how you can help.

Eastern tiger swallowtail

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is one of the most recognizable butterflies in Nebraska. It is large in size with a bright yellow color and black “tiger” stripes. Male tiger swallowtails have a few orange and blue spots near the tail. Females have both a light and dark form. The light form looks a bit like the male with the exception of more blue on the hind wings. The dark form still has the blue spots, but it is otherwise very dark with no yellow.

The eastern tiger swallowtail can be found in a variety of habitats, especially near water, but also in meadows, gardens, parks and roadsides. They drink nectar from flowers including milkweed, thistles, honeysuckle, ironweed and red clover.

Mourning cloak

The mourning cloak is a large butterfly. It is easy to identify with very dark brownish-maroon with pale, cream-colored edges, which often look ragged. They have bright blue spots along the edges and black-brown underwings. This butterfly camouflages itself when it rests on a tree trunk with its wings folded back. Mourning cloaks can be found in open woods, parks, gardens, and along the edges of streams, lakes and ponds. Adults drink nectar from plants, such as milkweed and red maple, rotting fruit and tree sap.

Common checkered-skipper

The upper side of the male common checkered-skipper is blue-gray, while the female is black in color. Both sexes have large white spots which form bands across the middle of both wings. The fringes of the male are checkered but black checks only reach halfway to the edge. The underside is dull white with dark gray bands.

The common checkered-skipper can be found drinking the nectar of white-flowered flowers including asters, red clover, fleabane and many others. They are found in sunny places with low vegetation as well as prairies meadow, fields, roadsides, landfills, yards, gardens, pastures and woodlands.

Zebra swallowtail

The zebra swallowtail’s upper wing surface has black stripes with a pale white-green background. Its hindwings have very long tails. The early spring form is smaller and lighter colored. These swallowtails breed in moist low woodlands near swamps and rivers. Adults fly to nectar plants in open fields and brushy areas seeking moisture from sand and nectar from flowers including blueberry, blackberry, lilac, redbud, verbena and common milkweed.

Cabbage white

The cabbage white butterfly is recognized easily with its charcoal gray tips. Males have a single black spot on the center of each forewing while females have two spots in the same place. The color under the forewings may be yellow or light green and is visible when the wings are closed.

The cabbage white butterfly can be found from early spring to late fall. They are well adapted to urban areas but can also be found in fields, meadows, parks and gardens. The caterpillar can be found feeding on the leaves of cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

The cabbage white butterfly is not a native Nebraska species and was introduced from Europe during the 19th century. It has since spread across the country.

Orange sulfur

Also known as the alfalfa butterfly, the orange sulfur is identified by a small dark mark on the upper forewing, which is rounded into an oblong dot. This butterfly is both a nectar plant and preferred host plant feeder.

Gray hairstreak

The gray hairstreak is the most common hairstreak butterfly. Look for the tails, the plain gray underwings with the narrow, tri-colored band of orange, black and white crossing both wings and the orange eyespot with a black center on the rear edge of the hindwing. Gray hairstreaks use a large variety of host and nectar plants that are commonly found in disturbed environments where humans are active. This is a wonderful visitor to observe among your landscape plantings including milkweed, dogbane, goldenrod and queen-Anne’s lace.

Question mark

The question mark butterfly has upper hindwings that are mostly orange. The summer generation has mostly dark upper hindwings. They are identified by the silvery “squiggle plus a dot” in the center of the under hindwing. This butterfly overwinters in Nebraska and can be seen flying on warm winter days. It rarely visits flowers but is attracted to carrion, scat, over-ripe fruit and puddles on damp earth.