CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Fascinating Lives of Butterflies

Posted by: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County Extension

One of my favorite parts about summer is watching butterflies. We have quite a variety of species in Colorado—over 250 according to What is so fascinating about butterflies? For me, one aspect is the process of metamorphosis. Many insects go through a full metamorphosis, but butterflies and moths can have such striking colors and patterns on the caterpillars, cocoons and chrysalises, and the adults.

I recently had a client contact the Extension office about caterpillars feeding on pansy plants. When I saw pictures, I knew they were the variegated fritillary caterpillars (Euptoieta Claudia)! Since the voracious caterpillars were causing quite a bit of damage to the pansies, he was looking to remove them. I immediately agreed to take them! I took photos at various stages of their life so I could share the wonderment with you. See the pictures at the bottom of this post.

The viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) closely mimics the monarch. Photo: Lisa Mason 

Butterfly and Moth Basics

Some facts—butterflies and moths:
  • Are part of the insect order Lepidoptera meaning scale wing
  • Are characterized by two characteristics: 1) their wings are covered in scales which are modified hairs, and 2) they have a proboscis which is a long, tubular mouthpart.
  • Go through a full metamorphosis consisting of four life stages: an egg, larva, pupa and adult
  • Have slight variations in each individual—just like a snowflake, no two individuals are the same, but the differences are very hard to spot in the outdoors
You can distinguish a butterfly from a moth a few different ways. Butterflies are diurnal, active during the day, while moths are generally nocturnal, active a night. Butterflies also tend to be more colorful which helps them attract a mate. Moths attract mates through smell. Their dulled colors help them camouflage at night to avoid predators. In addition, butterflies generally have antennae that are clubbed-shaped versus moth antennae usually taper to a point, or look feathery. Male moths in particular have large, feathery antennae. Moths also appear “fuzzier” than butterflies because the scales on their body are much thicker to keep them warm since they are mostly active at night. Butterflies rely on the sun to keep them warm. Both position their wings differently. Butterflies tend to fold their wings together, and moths hold their wings out to look more like a tent-shape.

Migration Phenomenon

One of the most fascinating things about butterflies is the migratory patterns of some species. Two migratory species of note that occur in Colorado are the monarch and the painted lady.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) host on milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) which contain a milky compound that is toxic to predators such as birds. The bright colors on monarch butterflies is often a warning to predators about the toxicity.  The migratory corridor of monarchs is through the Midwestern US as far north as Canada, and as far south as Mexico. Monarchs also migrate up the west coast of the US.  Colorado is not directly on the migratory path of monarchs, but we do see them here. Monarch butterflies use the position of the sun to navigate and a magnetic compass to orient when the days are cloudy. They possibly use a combination of both regularly. More research is needed to fully understand how monarchs navigate for the migration. More information here.
Adult monarch butterfly. Photo: Lisa Mason

Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on milkweed. Photo: Lisa Mason
Painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) are a common butterfly seen in Colorado. You may remember in 2017 when we had an explosion of painted lady butterflies in the fall! Painted lady butterflies are also a migratory species. They overwinter in the southwestern US and in Mexico. They migrate northward in the spring as plants become available. The population numbers in Colorado and surrounding areas depend on the weather in the southwestern US. When the southwest has more precipitation, the butterfly population will increase. All those butterflies then migrate northward. When the southwest has years of less precipitation, you might not see many butterflies. Painted lady butterflies are generalists and will forage on a variety of nectar-producing flowers. The caterpillars host on thistle, hollyhock and sunflowers. More information here.

Painted lady butterfly. Photo: Lisa Mason
A Few Other Species in Colorado

Two-tailed swallowtail butterflies (Papilio multicaudatus) are large (up to 5 inches long), yellow and are a commonly seen butterfly along the Front Range. The caterpillars feed on green ash and chokecherries. With the emerald ash borer growing along the Front Range, two-tailed swallowtails will many lose many ash trees as potential host sites. What can you do? Plant chokecherry trees! If you treat your ash tree to protect it from EAB, likely trunk injections would be a safer treatment method for these butter flies rather than trunk sprays.  The adults feed on nectar from thistles, milkweed, and other flowers. Two-tailed swallowtails can be differentiated from tiger swallowtails by a second projection off their hindwing. More information here.

Two-tailed swallowtail adult. Photo: Lisa Mason

Two-tailed swallowtail caterpillar. Photo: Lisa Mason
Black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) had a great year in 2019. They were very common in gardens along the Front Range. The butterflies are large and mostly black with some yellow markings. They host on plants in the carrot family (Apiacaea) including dill, parsley, and fennel. When the caterpillars are small, their colors resemble bird droppings that can help them camouflage. As the caterpillars grow, their colors become more striking with green, black and orange markings. More information here.

Colorado hairstreak butterflies (Hypaurotis crysalus) is the Colorado state butterfly! Haven’t seen this butterfly? You are not alone. They tend to be fast fliers. These butterflies host on gambel oak, which is a common shrub in the Colorado foothills and mountains. They don’t stray too far from their host plants, even as adults. You likely won’t catch these butterflies on flowers either. They tend to feed on sap from the trees, and honeydew from aphids and other insects. Some years have higher populations than others, likely dependent on the weather. More information here.

Common buckeye butterflies (Junonia coenia) aren’t the most common butterfly you see in Colorado, so if you do see them, take note! These lovely butterflies overwinter in the south where is warmer. Adults will migrate north to places like Colorado and will colonize over the summer months. The adults prefer flowers in the Asteraceae family including aster, gumweed, and tickseed flowers. Caterpillars host on snapdragons, toadflax and plantains. More information here.

Common buckeye butterfly. Photo: Lisa Mason
Attracting Butterflies

To attract butterflies to your backyard this summer, provide the following:
  • Nectar plants that are brightly colored and have a landing pad for the adults
  • Caterpillar host plants
  • Sunny, open areas
  • Trees and shrubs to protect them from wind and weather
  • A water source such as a shallow dish
For more information, visit Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden. Visit for details on what species have been documented in your area. You can find a lot of great field guides on butterflies. I recommend the Field Guide to Butterflies of North America by Jim Brock and Kenn Kaufman.

I hope you enjoy observing butterflies this summer! Here are the photos from the rearing variegated fritillary butterflies.

Cage setup with fresh pansies. 
Up close of a caterpillar. 
Feeding frenzy. 

Newly emerged butterfly. 
Time to fly!


  1. Awesome! I had that black swallowtail visit my Italian parsley and luckily I had my phone in my pocket! So I got a few pics. I also had those variegated fritillary caterpillars on my violas and pansies.
    Great article Lisa.

  2. Hi Lisa, Interesting and well written feature. I found it helpful and increased my knowledge on the various differences between butterflies and moths. Thank you!
    Jan Stoven

  3. Lisa, i so appreciate your passion and knowledge for pollinators!
    Yvette Henson