Updated date:

A Guide to Common Insects of Spring

This insect guide will help you identify the butterflies, bees, and other bugs that you see all around you.

a-guide-to-common-insects-of-spring

Springtime Insects of North America

Although most insects emerge once the warm weather and long days of summer are in full swing, some insects begin flying early in the spring, often before the leaves are out. This guide illustrates and identifies the most common insects of spring in North America and, because some species occur on more than one continent, in other parts of the world as well—especially Europe. It is intended for gardeners, naturalists, and anyone else with an abiding respect and appreciation for the natural world around them. I hope that this little guide brightens and enriches your spring days!

A boxelder bug

A boxelder bug

Boxelder Bugs

These insects are also known as red bugs or red stainers, because they have red body parts and fluids that can stain when you crush them. The red coloration warns predators that these insects taste and smell bad due to toxins in their tissues. They feed on boxelder trees and many other plants.

Boxelder bugs hibernate in sheltered spots. In nature, and for the last million years of their existence, that meant finding a stump or cave. Now that humans are around, they often decide on a cozy attic or basement corner, or in the walls of your rec room. Dozens or even hundreds can congregate in one overwintering spot.

Although they can be creepy looking and often suddenly appear in large numbers, they do not bite or sting, and are in fact completely harmless to humans. If you have boxelder bugs in your house, it does NOT mean your house is dirty, or damage is being done. The best thing to do is live and let live—they will move outdoors soon enough, because that's where they really want to be.

A larder beetle

A larder beetle

Larder Beetles

Larder beetles are called that because they are often found in the larder -- that is, your kitchen food cupboards. As with the boxelder bug, and every single other insect that has found a comfy place to hang out in your home, they are responding to an opportunity that hasn't been there for the past several million years of their existence. Larder beetles have evolved to find and eat organic matter of all kinds, from seeds to carrion. It's hardly their fault that they have found a wonderful source of those things in your kitchen.

These beetles may be found year-round in your house if the infestation is severe enough, but typically they will appear in numbers when the weather starts to warm up. You can tell if you have larder beetles by checking your stored grains, nuts, and even cured meats. You'll typically find both adults and larvae, which is admittedly pretty gross to see living in your food.

You can pretty easily solve a larder beetle problem by throwing away infested stores and keeping an eye out for the adults flying or crawling around you kitchen.

Asian Lady Beetle

Asian Lady Beetle

Asian Lady Beetles

Like boxelder bugs, these "ladybugs" overwinter in groups in sheltered places. When the weather warms up, they wake up and emerge, often in large numbers. One reason they occur in groups is that they literally huddle together to preserve warmth and energy. It's kind of cute, except for a couple of things:

  1. Asian lady beetles are not the same as the many native lady beetles.
  2. They can emit a foul-smelling fluid when bothered.
  3. They bite.

It's a little unnerving to find a cute little ladybug exploring your arm, just hanging out, and then feel a sharp, unprovoked pinch from the little guy. These bites are a little mysterious, since they are not the result of an overt threat to the insect. But they aren't at all severe, and there's no venom involved.

You can get rid of these beetles, if they're biting and bothering you, with a very simple tool: the vacuum cleaner.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

This innocent little bug has become common around homes lately, at least in the upper Midwest where I live. Again, like the boxelder bug, these insects are programmed by evolution to seek out a sheltered place once the weather gets cold—they're actually related to the boxelder bug, though not very closely. It's thought that the brown marmorated stink bug gained entry into the US by hitching a ride on packing crates or machinery imported from China. The first specimen was collected in Allentown, PA in 1998.

There are two things to remember about stink bugs:

  1. They eat plants, and can be a serious pest if there are enough of them around.
  2. They stink.

Number 2 is probably the most relevant to you, unless you are a large-scale farmer. When threatened, stink bugs can emit a foul odor, which can get on your clothes and last quite a long time. If there are a lot of these bugs in your house at the same time, you may have a problem with their accumulated odor. The solution, as it is for many of the household bugs in this guide: your vacuum cleaner.

A Kudzu Bug

A Kudzu Bug

Kudzu Bugs

These funny-looking insects are almost spherical, with a blunt, bulbous rear end. They are related to both boxelder bugs and stink bugs, and have similar habits (for similar reasons). They are a very recent arrival, having shown up in America around 2009. Kudzu bugs are now becoming quite common across the southern US.

Like stink bugs, kudzu bugs can emit a foul odor; like boxelders, they can sometimes cause staining, especially on fabrics. If they're causing a problem for you, simply vacuum them up and dispose of outdoors -- hard-bodied insects like the kudzu bug often survive the hoovering process just fine.

A stingless hoverfly, looking just like a bee

A stingless hoverfly, looking just like a bee

Hoverflies (or Flower Flies)

Hoverflies, also known as flower flies, are really cool insects that often make an appearance early in the spring. In general, these are flies that look like bees. Most people don't really know the difference, but there's a big one: flies can't sting, and most bees can. People, and many other potential threats to the harmless hoverfly, make the safe bet that any flying insect with a bright yellow and black pattern can sting. In this way, the fly gains protection. This is one example of mimicry in the animal kingdom; there are countless others.

If you're out in your garden or yard on a bright spring day, you will usually see insects visiting the first blooms of the season. Many of them sport a bright yellow and black pattern; some of these are bees, and some of them are flies, but chances are you'll leave them all alone, or even run when you encounter one nearby.

To make things even more confusing, hoverflies try to act as much like bees as possible; they fly like bees, and they'll even dip their hind end up and down to make sure everyone notices their bright warning colors. These flies are completely stingless and cannot hurt you at all, but it's difficult for even experienced naturalists to actually catch one in their hands without a twinge of apprehension. It turns out that the fear of the yellow-and-black color pattern is very deeply ingrained, even in humans!

The larvae of these insects occur on plants and eat other insects, which may make them beneficial for your garden, especially if you have an aphid problem -- aphids are one of the main food sources for hoverfly larvae. Hoverflies are also important pollinators, right alongside bees, butterflies, and other insects.

A cutworm moth

A cutworm moth

Cutworm Moths

Cutworms are those fat brown caterpillars that you often find when you're digging just under the surface of your garden in the mid and late summer. However, if you're paying attention to the moths around your porch light in the spring, you will likely see the adult versions of these cutworms: medium-sized brown moths, or "miller moths."

Cutworm moths belong to the family Noctuidae, and are often called "darts." they are harmless in their own right, but the presence of them can indicate that you have a population of cutworms inhabiting your yard or garden.

The breathtaking luna giant silk moth

The breathtaking luna giant silk moth

Giant Silk Moths

Giant silk moths are the rock stars of the North American insect fauna. They are, as the name suggests, huge, and they are all strikingly patterned and colored. If you are lucky, you will see one of these amazing moths flapping around a porch light in the late spring; they look at least as big as a bat!

Some of the most striking members of this spring-flying group are the green, long-tailed luna moth and the big-eyed Polyphemus moth, which has huge false eye spots to startle away predators.

A comma anglewing butterfly

A comma anglewing butterfly

Angle Wing Butterflies; Commas and Question Marks

These butterflies often hibernate in a sheltered spot over the winter, and then take to the wing very early in the season, sometimes flying over patches of snow on sunny spring days. These butterflies typically have a bright-orange upperside, but the underside of the wings is camouflaged to blend in perfectly with bark or dead leaves. There is one silver mark among the camo on the underwing, shaped like a question mark, which gives the butterfly its name.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Polygonia interrogationis
  • What does it eat? The caterpillar feeds on elms.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No
  • Where does it occur? Throughout the eastern US, with similar species in the West
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
A cabbage white butterfly

A cabbage white butterfly

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)

Not a true beauty, perhaps, but this plain white insect is by far the most successful butterfly in North America. It was introduced from Europe many years ago and has found a home everywhere from your backyard garden to the wilds of the western mountains.

The very inconspicuous pale-green caterpillar lives on the underside of many different leaves, especially cruciferous plants and other cultivars, and eats holes in the middle of the leaf; the damage is very familiar to even the most casual gardener. You can see the damage, but good luck finding one of the larvae—they are close to invisible.

The butterfly is not protected by poisonous compounds and doesn't really resemble known mimicry models like the orange monarch or the black-and-blue pipeline swallowtail, but it has become the single most common butterfly in city and countryside.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Pieris rapae
  • What does it eat? Just about anything
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, especially cabbage and kale
  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout North America.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you really want to.
Orange sulphur butterfly

Orange sulphur butterfly

Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)

The orange sulfur and the clouded sulfur (both members of the "clouded yellows and sulphurs" subfamily Coliadinae) can be hard to tell apart, and often fly together, so I put them together here. They are among the first butterflies to appear each spring, and they seem to have adapted very well to the disturbances humans cause in the landscape. Look out over the close-cut monoculture of a golf course or city park grounds and you'll probably see a few of these very common butterflies dancing across the grass.

There are several other yellow species in the Coliadinae subfamily, and they all look much alike to the casual observer. For this guide, I am sticking to the most common.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Colias eurytheme
  • What does it eat? Alfalfa and many other low plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, on occasion.
  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes
The spring azure butterfly, Celastrina ladon

The spring azure butterfly, Celastrina ladon

Spring Azure and Other Blues

The Blues are a generally common group of butterflies is in the family Lycaenidae. These insects are small and quick-flying, and their delicate, pretty markings require an up-close look or a good photograph to appreciate.

This family is especially abundant in the American west, and some mountain meadows have swirling clouds of blues of various species. The caterpillars are a little like fuzzy green slugs; they creep slowly around the flower-tops of their food plants, where they are very nearly invisible, even to the trained eye.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? These butterflies are in the family Lycaenidae.
  • What does it eat? These caterpillars eat a variety of flowering plants; they generally feed on the flowers.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Some of the blues, for example the Karner blue, are among the rarest of North American butterflies.
  • Where does it occur? These butterflies have a worldwide distribution.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly

Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly

Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti)

I almost didn't include the species, because it's not terribly common and is hard to identify on the wing—and with its constant patrolling behavior, it's almost always on the wing—but when a Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly stops to drink from a puddle or a flower, it shows its wings, and for my money there's not a more beautiful butterfly in North America.

It's related to several European species that are also striking, including the amazing peacock butterfly. Milbert's tortoiseshells are on the wing all summer, but some hibernate, and may come out on a warm spring day, sometimes when there's still snow on the ground.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Aglais milberti
  • What does it eat? Like others in this group, the caterpillar feeds on nettles.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, but this species has a fairly limited range.
  • Where does it occur? Mostly in northern areas of the US
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
Red Admiral butterfly

Red Admiral butterfly

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

The red admiral is yet another butterfly that some entomologists think is a mimic of the monarch, though the monarch is bigger, brighter, and has different flight habits. Is it possible that we are witnessing a species in the process of changing to become a more accurate mimic?

When you come down to it, there's no such thing as a species, in the sense of a fixed representative of an animal's permanent form; everything is in flux, shifting towards more and more successful variations on their form. The red admiral, then, along with every other butterfly on this page, is simply the "current version." It would be so cool to hang around for another million years or so and see what these insects all look like then!

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Vanessa atalanta
  • What does it eat? Like others in this group, the caterpillar feeds on nettles
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, but this species has a fairly limited range.
  • Where does it occur? This species can be found throughout the US, southern Canada, and Mexico.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.

Keep an Eye Out for Spring-Flying Insects

There are many other kinds of insects that you might encounter early in the spring—these are just a few. Be kind to these early fliers, and give them early blooming flowers and herbs to feed on. Even the pest species have a place in your garden and yard, and unless they are causing real damage, you're better off letting them be.

Resources

The following sources were consulted for this guide:

Related Articles