BugInfo Butterflies in the United States

Numbers of Species

There are approximately 750 species of butterflies in the United States. As a comparison, there are some 17,500 species known in the world. U. S. butterflies are placed in the following Families.

Hesperiidae (Skippers)

There are more than 200 species of Skippers in the United States. Their name is derived from their erratic flight habits. A few physical characteristics separate them from all other butterflies, these including antennae that are usually hooked or recurved, and wing venation that usually is dissimilar to butterflies. The Giant Skippers of the southern and western states have larvae that bore in the stems and roots of yucca and similar plants. These larvae are sold as food in Mexico, and sometimes appear as canned products in gourmet shops in the United States.

Lycaenidae (Blues and Hairstreaks)

Most butterflies of this family are relatively small and sometimes quite colorful. Elfins are brownish species that appear in the spring. Coppers are a group that are popular and found mostly in open areas of marshes and meadows. Hairstreaks often have delicate hairlike extensions on their hind wings. Blues are the smallest of the Family, and include the Pygmy Blue of the West, the smallest U.S. butterfly.

Nymphalidae (Brush-footed Butterflies)

The families Danaidae, Heliconiidae, Libytheidae and Satyridae, which are sometimes considered separate families in popular books, are included in the family Nymphalidae. One of the most prominent groups of nymphalids is the Fritillary Butterflies. Their underwings are usually marked with silvery spots. The Mourning Cloak is one of the few butterflies that overwinter as adults, accomplishing this by building up body chemicals similar to antifreeze. The Viceroy mimics the Monarch, a species distasteful to birds and other predators, and thus escapes being eaten.

Papilionidae (Swallowtails)

There are less than 30 species in the United States, compared with some 600 species worldwide. Most species are quite large, colorful and with tails on the hindwings. Included in this Family are the Parnassius butterflies that are typically white with colorful spots on the tailless wings.

Pieridae (Whites and Sulphurs and Yellows)

There are some 60 species in the United States, compared to about 1,100 worldwide. General colors in these mid-sized butterflies are usually white or yellow, while some species have orange-tipped wings or greenish marbling on the wings. The Cabbage White, perhaps the most common U.S. butterfly, is in this group.

Riodinidae (Metalmarks)

There are about a dozen species in the United States, and more than 1,000 in the world. Ninety percent of the world species occur in Latin America. They are small butterflies, often rust-colored, and only two species are found in the eastern U. S.

Selected References

Ehrlich, P. R. & Ehrlich, A. H. 1961. How to Know the Butterflies. W. C. Brown, Dubuque, Iowa.

Howe, W. H. (ed.) 1975. The Butterflies of North America. Doubleday, New York.

Miller, L. D. & Brown, F. M. 1981. A catalogue/checklist of the butterflies of America north of Mexico. Memoirs of the Lepidopterists' Society 2: 1-280.

Miller, J. Y. (ed.) 1992. The common names of North American Butterflies. Smithsonian Press, Washington, D.C.

Opler, P. A. 1992. Butterflies of Eastern North America and Greenland. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Pyle, R. M. 1981. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Prepared by the Department of Systematic Biology, Entomology Section,
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services
Information Sheet Number 189