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Butterflies on Milkweed: An Identification Guide to Butterflies Commonly Found on Milkweed Flowers (With Photos)

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Identify Butterflies Nectaring on Milkweed (Asclepias Species)

This article will help you identify and learn about the butterflies you may see visiting milkweed flowers, which are found on plants in the genus Asclepias. This genus includes several well-known garden and wild plants. They are typically protected by having white, toxic sap, hence the common name.

While it is true that nearly any butterfly (and some moths) may seek nectar at milkweed flowers during their lifetime, there are several species that are especially drawn to Milkweed blossoms.

There are several species related to the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), among them varieties of "butterfly bush," that are highly attractive to butterflies and other insects. If a species is especially attracted to the big, lavender globes of common milkweed flowers, it may also be attracted to these related plants.

The Monarch

The Monarch

The Monarch: Danaus plexippus

The monarch is closely tied to the milkweed plant. Its caterpillar feeds only on milkweeds, and the adult butterfly favors milkweed flowers as a source of nectar. If you have milkweed plants in your garden, you will almost certainly see monarchs attracted to them at some point in the summer. They are there not just to obtain nectar, but also to lay eggs that will hatch into caterpillars.

The striped, tentacled caterpillars are often found on milkweed, and it's worth spending some time to see if you can find a few!

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, but this species is under threat from industrialized agriculture.
  • Where does it occur? There are related species throughout the world.
  • What is the scientific name? Danaus plexippus
  • What does it eat? Milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of milkweed leaves.
A monarch caterpillar on milkweed

A monarch caterpillar on milkweed

The Queen

The Queen

The Queen: Danaus gilippus

The common name of this butterfly is meant to connect it to the monarch—Danaus gilippus was playfully made out to be the queen to the king. In any case, the two species are related, possibly very closely.

You will typically only see this species in southern states in the US; it does not range as far as the northern states. It's a gorgeous deep red-brown color with white spots on the wing tips. Although it doesn't look a lot like the monarch, its natural history is quite similar.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, but this species is under threat from industrialized agriculture.
  • Where does it occur? There are related species throughout the world.
  • What is the scientific name? Danaus plexippus
  • What does it eat? Milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of milkweed leaves.
The great spangled fritillary

The great spangled fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillary: Speyeria cybele

This butterfly is one of many similar species, all in the genus Speyeria. They are commonly known as "fritillary" butterflies. The great spangled fritillary has a typical appearance for a fritillary: orange ground color, black spots, and silvery markings on the underside.

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These butterflies fly in bright sun and can be quite large. They resemble monarches, but the ground is color is typically lighter and more true orange than the red-brown coloration of the monarch.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US, primarily in the north; there are many closely related species throughout North America.
  • What is the scientific name? Speyeria cybele
  • What does it eat? Violets and other low plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US, primarily in the north; there are many closely related species throughout North America.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
The regal fritillary

The regal fritillary

Regal Fritillary: Speyeria idalia

This beautiful butterfly is unfortunately quite limited in its range, so most people will never see it (even though I live in the Midwest and am always out in nature, I have never seen one in over 20 years). But in the right time and place, the beautiful regal fritillary can be found in good numbers, visiting many flowers—but it is especially fond of milkweed flowers.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? Yes, due to its very restricted range
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US, primarily in the north.
  • What is the scientific name? Speyeria idalia
  • What does it eat? Violets and other low plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
The black swallowtail

The black swallowtail

Black Swallowtail: Papilio polyxenes

This beautiful and very common swallowtail butterfly occurs in one form or another over pretty much the entire North American continent. There are also many very similar species and subspecies across the US, so depending on where you live you may have one or another. However they all look very much alike, and have generally very similar habits and food plants.

The caterpillars are green, yellow, and black, and feed on carrots and dill.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US; there are many closely related species throughout North America.
  • What is the scientific name? Papilio polyxenes
  • What does it eat? Carrots, dill, parsley, and related plants; also meadow rue
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? It can sometimes strip the leaves from garden plants.
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, these caterpillars are easy to raise.
The tiger swallowtail

The tiger swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail: Papilio glaucus

Tiger swallowtails are unmistakable, with their big tiger-striped wings and high, soaring flight. They do come down to take nectar from a variety of flowers, however, often choosing one or another variety of milkweed.

Like the black swallowtail, this species is actually a constellation of very similar species, subspecies, and forms. Adding to the mix, the female is often nearly black, instead of the usual tiger strip pattern.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout the eastern US; there are similar species throughout North America.
  • What is the scientific name? Papilio glaucus
  • What does it eat? Willow, wild cherry, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of the food plant you found it on.
The cabbage white

The cabbage white

Cabbage White: Pieris rapae

The cabbage white is hands-down the most common butterfly in North America, if not the world. It's actually an invasive species in North America, having arrived from Europe over a hundred years ago. The caterpillar is sometimes called the "green cabbage worm," a very apt description considering its favorite food plant and and its perfectly camouflaged green color.

The cabbage white nectars on almost everything, but it especially loves mint and species of milkweed.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, this species has a wide range.
  • Where does it occur? This species occurs throughout North America.
  • 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
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you really want to.
The red admiral

The red admiral

Red Admiral: Vanessa atalanta

This active, attractive little butterfly is often the first species to come out in the early spring. It can be very common, especially in places where its ffod plant, nettles, are abundant. The caterpillars make "nests" on the food plant, and can easily be found as the summer goes on. Be careful, though—nettles can give you a stinging red rash if you brush against them!

The red admiral nectars at a variety of flowering plans, but is especially fond of bright red/orange flowers like milkweeds in the genus Asclepias.

The Basics

  • 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.
  • 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
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
The painted lady butterfly

The painted lady butterfly

Painted Lady: Vanessa cardui

The painted lady rivals the cabbage white for status as the world's most widespread butterfly. It often undertakes huge migrations, expanding its range by flying in numbers into new areas.

This species may also gain some protection by resembling the monarch, a buttefly that may be protected by having toxic chemicals in its tissues that are acquired by the caterpillar as it feeds on—you guessed it—milkweed.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? No, this is one of the most common butterflies in the world.
  • Where does it occur? This butterfly has a worldwide distribution.
  • What is the scientific name? Vanessa cardui
  • What does it eat? The caterpillar feeds on nearly 300 different plants, mostly from the Aster family.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
butterflies-on-milkweed

The Blues: Family Lycaenidae

Blues can be found almost everywhere, and they visit many different kinds of flowers as they feed on nectar. I'm including this group here because there are so many species and they are very common, and they can often be found feeding at flowers of various milkweed species, including the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca.

The Basics

  • 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.
  • 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
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.
A typical skipper butterfly

A typical skipper butterfly

The Skippers: Family Hesperiidae

Like the blues (above), skipper butterflies are varied and often very common. They zip around in bright sunlight, where their typically yellow-orange colors catch the sunlight. They visit many garden flowers, especially marigolds in late summer, but they are also very likely to be found at any number of milkweed species.

The Basics

  • Is it rare? Some skippers are very scarce now due to the abuse of the environment.
  • Where does it occur? These butterflies have a worldwide distribution.
  • What is the scientific name? These butterflies are in the family Hesperiidae.
  • What does it eat? These caterpillars eat a variety of grasses.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Occasionally
  • Can you raise it from caterpillar to adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of leaves from the food plant.

Hope You Were Able to Identify the Butterfly on Your Milkweed!

Please check out my other guides to butterflies, insects, and caterpillars. And, as always, keep your eyes open and you will see beautiful things!

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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