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Orange Butterfly Identification Guide (With Photos)

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How to Identify the Orange Butterfly You Saw

If you are a nature-lover or a citizen scientist who is trying to identify an orange-colored butterfly that you have come across, then you are in the right place. This guide to orange butterflies in North America and Western Europe is designed specifically for you. It offers accurate and useful information about many of the orange butterfly species in North America and Europe. If a butterfly has a significant amount of orange coloring to its wings, then it is most likely included here.

This guide uses clear photos of each species as a way of identifying a butterfly you've seen. In addition, I describe the butterfly's way of flying and landing, the places you're most likely to see it, and its geographic range.

Nota bene: As you may imagine, there will always be some butterfly species and forms that are not included in a guide of this scope. If you don't see your orange butterfly here, then by all means keep looking! You may come across it on another site. Also, for specialists and professional entomologists, this guide does not attempt to address distribution, subspecies, and other factors at the level that is most likely useful to you. But I think you will still very much enjoy this stroll through some of the most beautiful and engaging insects on the planet!

  • Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
  • Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
  • Great-Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)
  • Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton)
  • Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
  • Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
  • Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe)
  • Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
  • Red Admiral (Vaness atalanta)
  • Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti)
  • Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis l-album)
  • Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)
  • Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
  • American Copper (Lycaenia phlaeas)
  • Harvester (Finiseca tarquinius)
  • Julia (Dryas ilulia)
  • Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
  • Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)
  • Goatweed Butterfly (Anaea andria)
  • Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
  • Mormon metalmark (Apodemia mormo)
  • Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
  • Peacock Butterfly (Anachis io)
  • Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)
  • European Coppers (Family Riodinidae)
  • European Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)
  • Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)
  • Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

Identification Chart to the Orange Butterflies in This Guide



Large; red-orange; cream underneath

Soaring flight; visits milkweed


Near-perfect mimic of the monarch

Low, quick flight with wings outstretched

Great Spangled Fritillary

Clear orange with silver on underside

Flies fast across sunny fields; visits flowers

Baltimore checkerspot

Small, brown with orange and cream crescents

Flies low and occurs in colonies

Pearl crescent

Very small, pale orange ground color, black spots

Flies very low; visits flowers and puddles

Orange sulphur

Medium-sized with dark wing margins

Flies in sun in fields and roadsides

Sleepy orange

Deep orange with black wing margins

Southern; generally flies low and slow

Painted lady

Red-orange; resembles a small monarch

Can be very common in sunny field at thistles

Red admiral

Brown ground color with orange bands and white dots

Flies early in spring; can be found around houses

Milbert's tortoiseshell

Brown ground color; bright orange wing margins

Uncommon but sometimes found in parks and towns

Compton tortoiseshell

Large; irregular wing margins; northern species

Northern species that occurs in wooded areas

Question mark

Like Compton, smaller; small silver mark underneath

Common in late summer; visits flowers and rotten fruit


Large colorful eyespots

Flies in bright sun; often lands in roads and paths

American copper

Bright, electric orange; small

Flies fast in sun; visits flowers


Small; orange-brown; pale underneath

Found in wooded areas; larva eats aphids


Bright orange, long wings

Southern species; flies fast in open fields

Gulf fritillary

Orange-crimson; bright metallic silver underneath

Not actually a fritillary; related to julia (above)

Variegated fritillary

Orange and black; pale underside

Resembles julia with shorter wings; related

Goatweed butterfly

Dark orange-brown; short tails on hindwing

Perches on tress and ground; fast flight

Fiery skipper

Bright orange-yellow; small

Buzzes around flowers in bright sun

Mormon metalmark

Very small; large cream spots on all wings

Western species; perches on ground

Small tortoiseshell

Resembles Milbert's tortoiseshell

Following species European; resembles North American relatives

Peacock butterfly

Like buckeye but eyespots larger and brighter

Visits flowers; related to tortoiseshells

Silver-washed fritillary

Clear orange with black spots above; green-silver beneath

Visits flowers; large

European coppers

Various; small; orange or pale blue

Small butterflies with various habits

European skippers

Various; small, orange to brown

Fly fast among flowers

Duke of Burgundy

Resembles a small silver-washed fritillary

Generally southern Europe


Orange-brown with subtle dark markings

Common in pastures; often land on fences and gates

Monarch upperside

Monarch upperside

Monarch underside

Monarch underside

The Monarch: Danaus Plexippus

We'll begin with the king of the butterflies, the monarch. This big, beautiful orange butterfly is hard to miss, and that's the point -- orange and black is a common "warning" coloration in the insect world. Monarch caterpillars eat exclusively milkweeds, and the plant's toxic sap ("milk") becomes part of the insect's physiology. Birds and other predators avoid monarchs, and the monarch's bright orange-and-black colors make it easy for them to remember and avoid attacking other monarchs in the future. If every orange butterfly looks like a monarch to the average person, it could be because many orange butterfly species may have evolved to resemble monarchs, whether or not they themselves are toxic.

If you look, you'll see that many of the butterflies in this guide have patterns similar to the monarch, even though they're usually smaller and browner. In fact, one species, the totally unrelated "viceroy," is a nearly perfect mimic of the monarch.

Please consider planting milkweed in your garden! This will help monarchs come back from the loss of their food plant due to industrial agriculture and its chemical herbicide run-off.

Geographic Range: Throughout the Western Hemisphere

Flight Characteristics: Soaring, gliding flight; well-known for impressive migrations and communal roosting

Caterpillar Food Plants: Exclusively milkweeds (Asclepias)

Status: Secure globally, but numbers have diminished, especially in American West

Notes: One of the most familiar of orange butterflies, the Monarch is likely involved in extensive mimicry relationships with many of the species in this guide due to its warning coloration and unpalatability to predators.

Viceroy upperside

Viceroy upperside

The Viceroy: Limenitis Archippus

Looking at this butterfly, it's hard to believe that it's not a monarch. But it isn't -- in fact, it's not even closely related to the monarch. The only real way to tell the species apart in the field is by subtle differences in the way they fly, and the black band across the viceroy's hindwing.

This butterfly ranges across most of North America. Despite its close resemblance to the monarch, the viceroy belongs to an unrelated family of butterflies. None of the other members of its group that occur in the same range resemble the monarch -- they're generally dark blue and black, some with bright white stripes. Even experienced butterfly watchers can be fooled by the viceroy, but watch when it flies -- the viceroy has a quicker flight, and often flights with its wings flat, which the monarch never does. The viceroy also visits dung and carrion, which the monarch does not.

For a long time it was assumed that the viceroy was palatable to birds and other predators which would mean its mimicry of the monarch was a form of Batesian mimicry. However, recent studies have shown that the viceroy is just as poisonous as the monarch, which means it's a Mullerian mimic, in which two protected species evolve to resemble each other.

Geographic Range: Throughout North America

Flight Characteristics: Quick and nervous, often with the wings held flat

Caterpillar Food Plants: Willows and other trees

Status: Globally secure

Notes: The viceroy was recently named the state butterfly of Maryland

Monarch Versus Viceroy


If every orange butterfly looks like a monarch to the average person, that's because many orange butterflies may have evolved to resemble monarchs.

Great spangled fritillary upperside

Great spangled fritillary upperside

Great spangled fritillary underside

Great spangled fritillary underside

The Great Spangled Fritillary: Speyeria Cybele

This beautiful butterfly can be seen in open fields in late summer, flying powerfully among purple coneflowers and asters, where it often lands to nectar. The silver spots on the underside are a good identifier of this species, as well as the many very similar fritillary species across North America.

The caterpillar is black with orange spines, and feed on violets. There are several other fritillary species, but none as common as this one.

Geographic Range: Eastern North America, with many similar species across the country

Flight Characteristics: Strong gliding flight; often visits coneflowers

Caterpillar Food Plants: Violets

Status: Globally secure, however many of its congeners are very rare and restricted to small remnants of their former range

Notes: This orange butterfly is quite common in late summer; the beautiful metallic silver "spangles" on the underside give it its common name


Baltimore Checkerspot: Euphydryas Phaeton

In my many years of looking for butterflies, I have yet to come across this species. This is mostly due to the fact that it doesn't stray very far from its localized colonies, which are in wet meadows and boggy areas. With areas like these disappearing every day due to thoughtless development by humans, this gorgeous butterfly is threatened in many places; in Maryland, it's on the endangered list, despite being the offical State Butterfly.

This species hibernates through the winter as a caterpillar, in dead leaves and grass on the ground. This means they must endure sub-freezing temperatures until spring, when they again begin eating and eventually pupate.

Geographic Range: Eastern US

Flight Characteristics: Fluttering flight in wet meadows; usually found in colonies

Caterpillar Food Plants: Turtlehead

Status: Threatened in some areas, and not common in general; found in local colonies

Notes: This butterfly has many similar species, mostly in the American West


Pearl Crescent: Phyciodes tharos

The humble little pearl crescent is one orange butterfly that often flies below the radar -- literally, because it seldom flies more than a foot above the ground. The pearl crescent shows up in the spring, and multiple broods keep the species present until late summer. The small caterpillars feed on the leaves of asters, which are in turn one of the most common of all North American field plants. The pearl crescent is perfectly fine with disrupted habitats, and can be found in any overgrown field or trail-side, or even along un-mowed lawns.

The very similar phaon crescent, Phyciodes phaon, replaces P. tharos across the South. It has more pronounced light patches on the underside, but is in most respects very similar to tharos. I have found it in the same kind of habitat from Kentucky and Missouri southward.

Geographic Range: Across eastern North America; similar species throughout North America

Flight Characteristics: Flies low and lands often; tends to fly along path and sidewalk edges

Caterpillar Food Plants: Various asters

Status: Very common throughout our area

Notes: This butterfly is very variable, and some individuals closely resemble other Phyciodes species


Orange Sulphur Butterfly: Colias Eurytheme

This butterfly and its very similar congener, Colias philodice, are very frequently found together, making identification difficult; add to that the fact that they enthusiastically interbreed, and you can basically just throw up your hands and label an individual "either/or." Some individuals are pale yellow, while others are deep orange, with all phases in between. To make it more interesting, some females of both species are white, and resemble the ubiquitous cabbage white butterfly, Artogeia rapae.

Finally, there are many other Colias species that are very similar, especially the pink-edged sulphur, which I have found in Maine, acting and looking exactly like C. eurytheme.

Geographic Range: Just about everywhere in North America

Flight Characteristics: Quick and sailing, stopping to nectar at clover and other plants; often occurs in numbers in overgrown fields

Caterpillar Food Plants: Clovers

Status: Abundant

Notes: Can occur in the thousands in the right place and time


Sleepy Orange: Eurema Nicippe

This bright orange butterfly occurs in the southern areas of North America, with similar species in the Southwest. It's unclear where the common name comes from; one source even suggests that the narrow little black spot on the upper wing resembles a closed or sleepy eye. Its flight isn't particularly sleepy, typical of the sulphur butterfly group.

This species sometimes expands its range, and I have found it in numbers as far north as Chicago once or twice. Individuals that hatch out later in the summer have brown shading on the underside. The caterpillars feed on a variety of legumes, including the very cool sensitive fern, which folds its leaflets when touched.

Geographic Range: Throughout the South

Flight Characteristics: Fluttering and low

Caterpillar Food Plants: Legumes, including wild pea and sensitive fern

Status: Secure

Notes: Look for wide dark wing borders on an orange background


Painted Lady: Vanessa cardui

This is a very common butterfly that sometimes undergoes population explosions or migrations, and at these times it can be the most common butterfly in a given environment. The butterfly has a fast, strong flight and takes nectar from a variety of flowers in open spaces. It's thought to mimic the monarch, although the two species don't really look or act very much alike.

The spiny caterpillar is generally thought of as "the thistle butterfly," but the caterpillar feeds on a wide variety of plants, a habit called "polyphagy." This makes the species a good choice for store-bought "raise-your-own-butterflies" kits, which include a culture of painted lady caterpillars that will eat a kind of pre-made paste; they will ultimately make a chrysalis and hatch into the adult butterfly in captivity.

This species can be found just about everywhere in the world except Antarctica and Australia. There are also closely related related species throughout the world.

Geographic Range: Literally everywhere

Flight Characteristics: Strong, gliding flight

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many plants, especially thistles

Status: Secure globally, to say the least

Notes: You will usually get this species in commercial butterfly kits

Red admiral showing cryptic underside

Red admiral showing cryptic underside

The Red Admiral: Vanessa Atalanta

After the painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui, above), the red admiral is the most commonly encountered orange and brown butterfly, especially in urban areas. They can often be seen flying around suburban houses, perching on porch rails and eaves in the late afternoon. Like V. cardui, doesn't look or act much like the monarch, but there is may be enough of a resemblance to the orange-black theme to give these species some protection.

The underside of the red admiral is "cryptic," which is to say it blends in with the background. The butterfly typically lands and snaps its wings open a few times before closing them; at these times it can sometimes effectively "vanish." Red admirals also have a well-documented habit of landing on people and staying there, riding along for several minutes. I have occasionally been able to coax individuals onto my finger, a basically unheard-of event for every other butterfly species out there.

The common name of this species is possibly derived from an archaic name: "the red admirable." I myself think this is a great name for this lively, common, and very friendly butterfly.

Geographic Range: Widely distributed across North Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean

Flight Characteristics: Quick and nervous, often making wide circles to return to the same perch

Caterpillar Food Plants: Primarily nettles; colonies make webby nests

Status: Secure globally

Notes: If you see an orange-and-brown butterfly zipping around your house, there's a good chance it's a red admiral.


Compton Tortoiseshell: Nymphalis L-Album (or Vaualbum)

The big, beautiful Compton tortoiseshell butterfly is a primarily northern species, ranging across pine and deciduous woods from Canada to Asia. I have found it to be common while on camping trips to the Canadian-US border Boundary Waters area, but I also encountered one individual perched on an iron fence in downtown Chicago; how it got there I'm not sure, but this species does occasionally occur that far south.

Like most so-called "angle-wings," the Compton tortoiseshell has an orange-brown mottled upperside and a highly camouflaged, or "cryptic" underside. It's considerably larger than other members of the group, except the question mark butterfly, but even given its size it can be very hard to find once it lands.

If you see a large orange butterfly in northern woods, it's likely this species. Other angle wings occur in the North, but none are as large as this species.

Geographic Range: Northern temperate regions

Flight Characteristics: Strong and quick, with frequent long rests high up on tree trunks

Caterpillar Food Plants: Poplars, birches, and other trees

Status: Secure globally

Notes: This beautiful orange butterfly is named after the Quebec town of Compton, where it was encountered by the entomologist Philip Henry Gosse.


Milbert's Tortoiseshell: Aglais Milberti

This truly beautiful butterfly may have more in common with European tortoiseshells; there is some taxonomic debate as to whether it's truly a member of the Aglais genus, or should be in its own category. Whatever the case. a freshly hatched Milbert's tortoiseshell is really a stunning thing. The fiery orange-yellow margins on a deep chocolate background, set off by light blue marginal chevrons, put this insect in a class of its own.

This is an insect of Canada and Alaska. I have encountered A. milberti across the Midwest, but it is never particularly common. It flies quickly and often lands on the ground, where it opens and closes its wings. The underside is very cryptic, but up close it reveals beautiful dark brown striations that create the camouflage.

Geographic Range: Across Canada and the arctic, extending into the American Midwest

Flight Characteristics: Quick and nervous, with frequent landings on trees and ground

Caterpillar Food Plants: Nettles

Status: Apparently secure

Notes: The female may lay as many as 900 eggs on the underside of nettle leaves

Question mark butterfly showing underside

Question mark butterfly showing underside

The Question Mark: Polygonia Interrogationis

This beautiful orange butterfly becomes quite common in eastern woodlands in mid to late summer. It is more or less the southern version of the Compton tortoiseshell; it resembles that butterfly superficially, but is brighter orange and has narrower, more angled wings. There are seasonal forms that are more or less bright orange and have lighter colored undersides.

The very similar comma butterfly P. comma is another "punctuation" butterfly that may be confused with the question mark, but they are always darker and smaller. If you can get close enough to see the underside, you will see P. interrogationis's clear gold-silver question mark against a brown background; P. comma has, predictably, a comma mark.

Geographic Range: Throughout eastern North America; very similar species in the American West

Flight Characteristics: Quick and soaring, circling back to land on the ground or foliage

Caterpillar Food Plants: Elms

Status: Secure

Notes: Look closely and you'll see the metallic punctuation mark that gives this insect its common name


The Buckeye: Junonia Coenia

One of the true highlights of an eastern US butterfly walk, the buckeye is a beautiful and personable insect that can be expected on gravel roads and trails across its range. It has a very characteristic way of flying that, with a little experience, can be spotted well before you're close enough to see the wing pattern. Individuals habitually land on the ground and hold their wings flat, before launching into the air again, wheeling around in a fast nervous flight before landing very near the same spot.

Another characteristic of this butterfly is its aggressiveness. It will chase any other species of butterflies away from its "territory," as well as large Carolina grasshoppers, against whom it seems to hold a particular grudge.

The spiny, dark-colored caterpillars feed in groups on plantains, from which they appear to gain a degree of chemical protection. The butterflies nectar at flowers, when they're not protecting their patch of ground.

Geographic Range: Across eastern North America, with very similar species extending into the Neo Tropics

Flight Characteristics: Quick and nervous, landing often on the ground

Caterpillar Food Plants: Plantains

Status: Secure

Notes: This beautiful butterfly is easy to identify, even from a distance


Small Copper: Lycaenia Phlaeas

The small copper is even more aggressive than the buckeye (above), and commonly launches raids on everything from other butterflies to birds to people, setting out from its perch on a flower stalk or branch. It is of course harmless (after all, it's a tiny little butterfly), but territorial defense in butterflies rarely gets this energetic. Male coppers pursue females into wooded or secluded areas for mating.

This small, bright-orange butterfly is found around the world, from Europe, Asia, and North America to North Africa south through Ethiopa. You will find this butterfly in late summer in many environments, including woodland clearings, open second-growth fields, and roadsides. It is very adaptable and can sometimes be found in city parks. The caterpillar feeds on various docks, which are generally very common "weed" species found in open areas, roadsides, and overgrown fields.

There are many different kinds of copper butterflies in the family Lycaenidae, which also includes the blues. Some of them are orange in color, and can be found in the American West.

Geographic Range: Much of the world, from North America to Europe to Africa

Flight Characteristics: Quick and darting; flies in bright sun

Caterpillar Food Plants: Various kinds of dock

Status: Secure

Notes: This very widespread species is one of the most brilliantly orange butterflies in our area.


The Harvester: Finiseca Tarquinius

This butterfly is related to the little copper (above), and in some ways resembles that species. There is one major difference, however, between this species and all other coppers -- in fact, all other butterflies in North America: the caterpillars are carnivorous. They feed on woolly aphids, small insects that infest alders and other trees, and as a result of this high-protein diet grow very quickly. Like most other Lycaenidae caterpillars, they are slug-like and inconspicuous, however the pupa resembles the head of a snake, a form of protective mimicry (some say it looks more like a monkey's face, but the evolutionary advantages of this are dubious).

This butterfly is not common, and is generally inconspicuous. It tends to land high in trees, or at least above head level, and sticks to wooded areas. I have seen it twice in the Midwest, including an unexpected individual in a nature center in a very urbanized part of the city of Chicago.

Geographic Range: Eastern North America

Flight Characteristics: Quick and circling; lands on leaves and tree trunks; found in forests

Caterpillar Food Plants: Not leaves; caterpillars feed on aphids on alders and other trees

Status: Uncommon, but keep your eyes open in the woods!

Notes: One of the only butterfly species in the world that does not feed on leaves or plants


The Julia Longwing: Dryas Iulia (Julia)

This butterfly is a part of the fauna of the neotropics, and as such occurs from Florida to Texas; it would be exceedingly unusual to find this species much farther north, although climate change could theoretically affect that. In the South, look for julia butterflies flying strongly in bright sunlight. The females are a dull orange, but males are among the most brilliant orange butterflies you will see, especially in bright sunshine.

This species and the closely related gulf fritillary (below) are members of the Heliconiinae, a group with a bewildering array of species and forms throughout the neotropics; I have seen julias flying in fields from Panama to Mexico, mixed in with all different examples of other Heliconiids. You will also often see julias in butterfly houses and exhibits.

Geographic Range: Neotropical areas, into the southern US states

Flight Characteristics: Strong and gliding, in bright sunny fields

Caterpillar Food Plants: Passion-flower and related vines

Status: Secure

Notes: One of the brightest orange butterflies in our area, impossible to miss where it occurs


Gulf Fritillary: Agraulis Vanillae

This species is closely related to Dryas Iulia, the julia butterfly (above). It is not a true fritillary, but has a very similar color scheme that has resulted in its confusing common name. The resemblance is so close that it would seem likely to be part of a mimicry system. Like most Heliconiids, the larva feeds on passion-flower vines.

As with many orange butterflies, the gulf fritillary is chemically protected; in general, the way it works is that noxious substances in the caterpillar food plant become part of the caterpillar's, and then the adult's, body chemistry. Birds and other predators learn to avoid insects that have the orange-and-black coloration. Gulf fritillaries, in addition, can actually release deterrent substances whenever they feel threatened, which further reinforces the effectiveness of orange and black coloration.

The gulf fritillary is aptly named, since in the US it is generally confined to the states bordering the gulf of Mexico. However it undergoes periodic migration as far south as the Midwest; I once saw one in a field in Indianapolis, and there are records much farther north. Keep your eyes out for a bright orange butterfly with crimson and metallic silver on the underside -- this is one that's hard to miss!

Geographic Range: Neotropical regions up to the southern US

Flight Characteristics: fast and gliding, landing often to nectar, when the diagnostic underside may be seen

Caterpillar Food Plants: Passion-flower vines

Status: Secure

Notes: Not a true fritillary (Speyeria genus), but rather a member of the Heliconiinae subfamily, like Drays iulia and many other neotropical butterflies.


Variegated Fritillary: Euptoieta Claudia

The variegated fritillary is in some ways a link between the Heliconiids (neotropical long-wing butterflies) and the genus Speyeria, the true fritillaries. It has the typical orange-and-black coloring of both the gulf fritillary and the true fritillaries, and the caterpillar eats both passion-flower vines like the Heliconiids, and violets like Speyeria butterflies. The range of this butterfly overlaps both groups, as it is found from Florida to Minnesota. It all gets a little confusing, but you can almost always identify this species in the field by its dull orange color, medium-large size, and lack of silvered spots on the underside.

The Latin name of this butterfly is Euptoieta claudia; Euptoieta is Greek for "easily scared," and I can vouch for that -- getting close to a variegated fritillary is an exercise in frustration. They fly immediately whe you're within less than ten feet, but still that's close enough to make a positive identification.

The pupa of this species is extraordinarily beautiful, with gray, cream and black set off with bright metallic silver.

Geographic Range: Most of the eastern US

Flight Characteristics: Low and fluttering, but can fly fast when alarmed, which is often

Caterpillar Food Plants: Violets, passion-flower vines, and others

Status: Common

Notes: This insect is a kind of link between the true fritillaries and the Heliconiids


Goatweed Leafwing: Anaea Andria

Like several of the orange butterflies in this guide, the goatweed butterfly is a creature of the neotropical regions. There are many related species ranging throughout Central and South America, and many of them have brilliant reflective blue and red coloration. The goatweed butterfly occurs in Florida, Texas, and points in between. I have found this species in parks in southern Texas from March to October.

The bright orange upper wings contrast with the cryptic underside, which as I mentioned earlier is a very common color scheme among the butterflies in this guide. When a goatweed leafwing lands, the bright orange of the upperside disappears, and the camouflaged underside makes them essentially vanish. Finding one of these butterflies after it lands can be very difficult.

The adults feed on dung and droppings, and can be lured with the right kind of bait.

Geographic Range: Throughout the southern US, into Mexico

Flight Characteristics: Quick, gliding flight with wings outstretched

Caterpillar Food Plants: Croton species

Status: Secure

Notes: An insect of the south and west, very seldom found to the north


Fiery Skipper: Hylephila phyleus (and Other Skipper Butterflies)

This butterfly is representative of many of the butterflies in the large family Hesperiidae. Members of this very common group of butterflies are generally readily identifiable by their stout bodies, pointed wings, and quick, "skipping" flight. Exceptions to this rule are the giant skippers and a few other large species, but for the most part skippers tend to look alike.

The fiery skipper is representative of the typical skipper type. Its common name is appropriate, because when the male butterfly flies in the sun, its reflective-orange wings seem to almost be aflame. The caterpillar feeds on a variety of grasses, including Bermuda grass, and when there are enough of them they may be considered a pest species.

Another skipper habit is the way they often hold their wings in a "fighter jet" position when resting on a flower or leaf. This is a very reliable field characteristic. The fiery skipper can be found in North and South America, from Canada to Argentina, and has been known to migrate.

Geographic Range: Very wide-ranging; present in much of the Western Hemisphere

Flight Characteristics: Fast and "skipping" flight; glows orange in bright sunlight

Caterpillar Food Plants: Grasses

Status: Secure

Notes: This common little orange butterfly is representative of many skipper species


Mormon Metalmark: Apodemia Mormo

The Mormon metalmark is an excellent example of how confusing it can be to pin down an exact identification for some groups. There are several populations throughout the west, with a variety of subtle differences, that may be subspecies; then again, they may not. For the average person just trying to identify an orange butterfly they have seen, however, this distinction is probably unimportant. If you are interested in the complex taxonomic issues surrounding this butterfly, there are many excellent articles online.

In the west, you will find many metalmarks that have orange-patterned wings. Some species have considerable variation from place to place. If you see a small brown and orange butterfly with a fluttering flight visiting flowers, there is a good chance it is either a metalmark species or a checkerspot (above).

Geographic Range: Throughout the American West, north into British Columbia

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering, with frequent visits to flowers; also basks in full sunlight on the ground

Caterpillar Food Plants: Various species of Erigonum

Status: Secure in general, although many recognized subspecies are quite rare and threatened by habitat loss

Notes: This butterfly has so many forms and subspecies that accurate identification can puzzle experienced entomologists


Small Tortoiseshell: Aglais Urticae

This beautiful bright-orange butterfly was among the most abundant butterflies of western Europe only a few years ago, but there have been fewer and fewer records, a sharp decline that has biologists puzzled. The food plant, nettles, are as common as ever, which is often the reason for the decline of other species -- consider, for example, the suggested connection between the destruction of milkweed plants by industrial pesticide run-off and the loss of monarch populations in the US. One theory involves the increase in temperatures brought about by climate change and needs of newly hatched caterpillars.

This butterfly has a wide range, and other populations may not be as affected as those in Western Europe. It occurs in temperate Europe, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Siberia, China, Nepal, India, Mongolia, Korea and Japan -- basically wherever common nettle is found. There are even records from New York City, although these are almost certainly the result of people releasing adults and not established populations.

Geographic Range: Temperate Europe and parts of Asia

Flight Characteristics: A fast-flying butterfly that visits flowers in bright sunlight

Caterpillar Food Plants: Nettles

Status: Widespread but drastically declining in only a few years

Notes: The genus Aglais has one representative in the North American fauna, Aglais milberti, Milbert's tortoiseshell (above)


Peacock Butterfly: Aglais Io

This gorgeous butterfly is more properly red than orange, but it's close enough, and beautiful enough, that I wanted to include it in this guide. This butterfly's stunning eyespots lend a resemblance to the buckeye butterfly (above), but it is not related. The glowing colors of the upperside are offset by the very cryptic underside, which is very dark gray and blends in with branches and foliage. The effect of a bright upperside and dark underside has been discussed above under the heading "Why Are So Many Butterflies Orange?"

The eyespots have been shown to make predators, chiefly birds, hesitate before attacking. When the butterfly snaps its wings open, the brilliant eyespot markings look enough like an animal to give the butterfly time to escape.

The peacock butterfly is related to the small tortoiseshell (above), but unlike that butterfly, the peacock is expanding its range and actually becoming more common. I have seen it in gardens in urban areas not far from London, England. This is even more puzzling given the fact that both species feed on nettles.

Geographic Range: Across Northern Europe and parts of Asia

Flight Characteristics: Gliding and fairly leisurely flight; shows eyespots as protection

Caterpillar Food Plants: Nettles

Status: Secure; apparently expanding its range

Notes: This butterfly is in the same genus as both the small and Milbert's tortoiseshell


Silver-Washed Fritillary: Argynnis Paphia

This beautiful orange butterfly is closely related to the wide variety of similar fritillaries in North America; like those species, the caterpillar feeds on violets and the butterfly is bright orange with at least some silver on the underside. The silver-washed fritillary does have at least one different and interesting habit -- the female lays her eggs not on the violet plants upon which the caterpillar feeds, but instead at about head-level on nearby tree trunks. The caterpillar hatches out in late summer ind immediately goes into hibernation; when the weather warms up it drops to the ground and crawls to the adjacent violet plants.

Geographic Range: Europe, temperate Asia and Japan.

Flight Characteristics: Strong, gliding flight, often high in tree tops

Caterpillar Food Plants: Violets

Status: Generally secure; numbers in the UK were down but are increasing

Notes: Very similar to North American fritillaries, but underside is mainly pale green with some silver markings


Small Copper: Lycaena Phlaeas

Abundant in Europe, the small copper is also common in North America, and is described above.


Large Skipper: Ochlodes Venatus

Skippers are common in both Europe and North America; the group is described above.


Duke of Burgundy: Hamearis Lucina

For many years this orange and brown butterfly was known as the Duke of Burgundy fritillary, for its resemblance to those butterflies in the Nymphalidae family. However it is not a fritillary at all, but rather a member of the Riodinidae family, the metalmarks. This means it is related to the Mormon metalmark (above), as well as the metalmark butterflies that proliferate in amazing forms throughout the neotropics and the world.

The species ranges from the UK to Spain and the Balkans. In the UK, you will find the Duke of Burgundy in two distinct habitats: grassland on chalk or limestone, and clearings in old-growth forests. The males are territorial and will chase each other in what look like free-wheeling aerial dogfights. Once the butterfly lands, though, it's possible to make a reliable identification.

Geographic Range: Much of Western Europe

Flight Characteristics: Quick and zipping, especially when males are chasing each other

Caterpillar Food Plants: Cowslip

Status: Generally secure now, thanks to active efforts that pulled it back from the brink several years ago.

Notes: This species is an example of how determined and focused work can bring a species back from the endangered list.


The Gatekeeper: Pyronia Tithonus

The gatekeeper butterfly earns its name by frequenting meadows and country road-side; it has a habit of perching on gates. It can be found throughout southern and eastern Britain and parts o Ireland, though interestingly not in Scotland. It is the only member of the very large Nymphalid subfamily Satyrinae in this guide; nearly all satyrs are brown or gray. The gatekeeper is a pale orange with a brown background. One good field mark is the presence of two small eyespots on the upper wings. The similar meadow brown butterfly has much less orange and single pupils in the eyespots.

Over the past thirty years the gatekeeper has expanded its range to include more of Northern Britain. The larvae feed on various grasses.

Geographic Range: Much, but not all of the UK

Flight Characteristics: Bouncing flight with frequent pauses to nectar; also basks with open wings on posts and gates

Caterpillar Food Plants: Grasses

Status: Expanding its range

Notes: This is the only member of the Nymphalid subfamily Satyrinae in this guide


The following sources were used for this guide:

  • Layberry, Ross, et al. “The Butterflies of Canada.” 1998, doi:10.3138/9781442623163.
  • (Although this source is dubious in many ways, individual insect species entries on Wikipedia are typically up-to-date and include the latest work of taxonomists, information about endangered status, and so on.)

All images are from unless otherwise noted.

Glossary of Some Terms Used in the Guide

  • neotropics: tropical zones of North, Central, and South America
  • cryptic: blending in with the environment
  • mimicry: looking like a different species or animal
  • metamorphosis: literally, "all-over change." In butterflies, there are four major stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult.
  • larva: immature form; in butterflies, a caterpillar
  • pupa: the stage between larva and adult
  • chrysalis: another word for pupa
  • species: a way to describe a group of organisms; typically means one species cannot produce viable off-spring with another, but there are exceptions.
  • subspecies: different-looking groups that still qualify as members of one species
  • taxonomy: the science of organization; deciding if a group qualifies as a species, for example.
  • distribution: in the guide, it means where a butterfly occurs

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.