Many of the skills required for successful birdwatching also translate to learning about lepidoptera. Like birds, butterflies are divided into families, and being able to place an unknown specimen in its family greatly simplifies species identification. Here in the Kansas City area, we have 5 main butterfly groups:
- SKIPPERS are small butterflies with very large eyes, short antennae, and stout bodies. This group is divided into Spreadwing Skippers and Grass Skippers. Spreadwing skippers are generally dull in color and as their name suggests, rest with their wings spread out flat, rather than folded. Grass skippers display various patterns of orange, black, and brown; they rest with their hindwings flat and forewings raised. Their name refers to the fact that their caterpillars generally feed on grasses and sedges.
- SWALLOWTAILS are large butterflies distinguished by thin trailing appendages on their hindwings that resemble the tail of a Barn Swallow. They are easily recognized with their bright colors and patterns and their habit of continually beating their wings during feeding. This fluttering movement helps them to balance their relatively big and heavy bodies while perching on flowers.
- SULPHURS AND WHITES are small white, yellow and orange butterflies that are abundant in the Midwest, where there are plenty of legumes and mustard-family plants to feed their caterpillars. They are especially noticeable throughout late summer and fall, and can often be found “puddling” on moist soil and gravel.
- BRUSHFOOT butterflies walk on 4 legs, rather than 6, as most others do. Their forelegs are reduced to rudimentary, “brush-like” appendages that give the family its name. This is our largest and most diverse group of butterflies.
- BLUES AND HAIRSTREAKS are tiny colorful butterflies that share the sulphurs’ love for “puddling”. Most species sport threadlike “tails” on their hindwings and their caterpillars feed on the leaves and buds of woody plants.
We are fortunate to enjoy a prolonged butterfly-watching season; adults regularly fly from March to November, and a few species that overwinter as adults (such as the Mourning Cloak and Question Mark) may even be seen on warm winter days. Consult our “Butterfly Calendar” to learn which species can be expected during each month! Even in the most favorable conditions, adult butterflies have very short lifespans (with a few exceptions, such as overwintering Monarchs), generally ranging from 2-6 weeks. Their adult life is devoted to mating and laying eggs, and some species actually spend more time as caterpillars than they do as adults.