Descriptions of Families and
Sub-Families of Flower-Visiting
Butterflies, Skippers, and Moths
Arctiidae (Tiger Moths, Wasp Moths)
These small- to medium-large moths have whip-like antennae and are usually brightly colored. Their caterpillars construct cocoons consisting primarily of larval hairs this is particularly true in the Arctiinae subfamily. Two subfamilies will be described further. Arctiidinae (Tiger Moths): These moths have forewings that are black or brown with conspicuous patches or stripes of white or yellow. The hindwings are often rosy pink, orange-yellow, or light yellow, with patches of black or brown. Other color variations exist. The "Woolly Bear" caterpillars are found in this subfamily. These caterpillars feed on a wide variety of plants, and are commonly observed. A few species fly around during the day, and may visit flowers for nectar. Ctenuchinae (Wasp Moths): These moths have narrow wings, rather hairless bodies, and usually fly during the day. They are mimics of wasps and bees. Their wings are black with white spots, dull gray, or partially transparent. Their bodies are black, red, or yellow, sometimes with bee-like stripes around the abdomen. They are highly variable in size. The caterpillars feed on grasses and various other plants. A typical example in this family is Cisseps fulvicollis (Yellow-Collared Scape Moth), which is very common on wildflowers.
Skippers are small- to medium-sized insects, resembling butterflies or moths (they are more closely related to the former). They have hairy bodies that are short, stout, and rather dull-colored, while their wings consist of some pattern of brown, grey, or yellowish orange and black. Skippers have a fast, darting flight, and favor open, sunny areas. The caterpillars of most species feed on grasses or sedges in prairies or wetlands. However, the caterpillars of Epargyreus clarus (Silver-Spotted Skipper), feed on members of the Bean family (including Locust trees), while those of Pholisora catyllus (Common Sootywing) feed on various weedy plants, including Pigweeds, Amaranths, and Lamb's Quarters. Both of these species are larger than the other skippers. There are many species in this family, and they are important visitors to many prairie wildflowers, particularly during the summer or fall.
Lycaenidae (Gossamer-Winged Butterflies)
These are small butterflies with iridescent colors. The three most important subfamilies are the Hairstreaks (Theclinae), Coppers (Lycaeninae), and Blues (Polyommotinae). Butterflies in this family often visit composite flowers (Asteraceae) and small wildflowers from other families. Theclinae (Hairstreaks): These butterflies are silvery grey with rows of red or blue dots on the wing undersides, while the uppersides (exposed when the wings are outstretched) are a drab gray, brown, or black. Sometimes there is a small tail on each hindwing. The caterpillars feed on various trees and shrubs, including willows, wild cherries, hawthorns, oaks, hickories, and sumac. The species Strymon melinus (Gray Hairstreak), also feeds on some herbaceous plants, such as Mallows and Smartweeds. Lycaeninae (Coppers): These butterflies are orange and silvery gray with scattered black dots on the wing undersides. The uppersides have vivid orange and black patterns, although they are sometimes greyish or purplish in overall appearance. The larvae feed primarily on Rumex spp. (Dock) and Polygonum spp. (Smartweed & Knotweed). Polyommotinae (Blues): The Blues are silvery grey, or blue on the wing undersides, with rows of black dots and a patch of orange on the hindwings. The wing uppersides are silvery blue with white or black edges. Some species have small tails on the hind wings, and females are sometimes gray on the uppersides. The caterpillars of Blues usually feed on legumes, although the caterpillars of Celastrina argiolus (Spring/Summer Azure) feed on various small trees and shrubs, including Dogwood, Wild Cherry, Sumac, New Jersey Tea, and Viburnum. The caterpillars of Blues often secrete a honey dew that attracts ants.
Noctuidae (Owlet Moths, Underwing Moths)
This is a large family of small- to medium-sized hairy moths. They often have gray, brown, or yellow-tan patterns on their wings, but sometimes have patches of white, green, or pink. Sometimes the hindwings are lighter-colored than the forewings. The Underwing Moths, however, tend to be larger, and have showy hindwings with patterns of yellow/orange and black. Male moths in the Noctuid family have plume-like antennae to detect pheromones from females. Noctuid moths also have the capacity to detect sonar from bats, which helps to reduce losses from predation. The caterpillars of Noctuid moths feed on a wide variety of plants, including even dead leaves, fungi, and lichens. They are sometimes serious pests on agricultural crops and forest trees. Larval hairs are not used in the construction of cocoons, unlike moths from some other families.
Nymphalidae (Brush-Footed Butterflies)
This is a large family of small- to large-sized butterflies. The front feet are atrophied and used as sensory organs, while the remaining feet are used for locomotion. Brush-Footed butterflies are important visitors of various wildflowers, although a few species prefer tree sap, fermenting fruit, or dung. There are several subfamilies; only the more important ones will be described. Libytheinae (Snout Butterfly): Only a single migratory species occurs in the area, Libytheana carinenta bachmanii (American Snout). The wing undersides are brown-patterned (resembling a dried-out leaf), while the uppersides have patches of orange and brown with white dots. Projecting from the head is an elongated labial palp, or "snout," giving this butterfly a distinctive appearance. The caterpillars feed on leaves of hackberry. Limenitidinae (Viceroy et al.): These are large butterflies that often mimic other species. The species Limenitis archippus (Viceroy), is orange with black stripes and white dots. It mimics the Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars feed on willow, wild cherry, and other plants. The species Limenitis arthemis astyanax (Red-Spotted Purple) is black with rows of blue and orange dots. It is a mimic of the Pipevine Swallowtail, but the hindwings have no tails. Further to the north occurs another variety of this butterfly, Limenitis arthemis arthemis (White Admiral). It is black with conspicuous bands of white, along with rows of blue or orange dots. The caterpillars of Limenitis arthemis feed on plants that are similar to those that are described for the Viceroy. Nymphalinae (Painted Ladies et al.): This is a large subfamily, including the Red Admiral, Painted Ladies, Buckeye, Mourning Cloak, Comma, Checkerspots, Baltimore, and others. Most of these butterflies have brown patterns on the wing undersides (looking like a dead leaf), and orange/black patterns on the oversides with white dots. They are medium- to large-sized butterflies. The species Nymphalis antiopa (Mourning Cloak), however, is black with a band of yellow and blue dots along the margins of the wings. The caterpillars of these butterflies feed on a wide variety of plants, such as nettles, elm, willow, hops, plantains, turtlehead, and members of the Aster family. Heliconiinae (Fritillaries): These butterflies are checkered orange and black with white dots. Their larvae are nocturnal and feed primarily on violets, although some species feed on passion vines in southern Illinois. Danainae (Monarch): In our area, this consists of a single species, Danaus plexippes (Monarch), which migrates northward from Mexico, not arriving in central or northern Illinois until mid-summer. It is a large orange butterfly with black stripes and white dots. The caterpillars feed on milkweeds. Satyrinae (Wood Nymphs, Pearly Eyes): These are brown woodland butterflies with black/white eyes. The wing undersides are a lighter shade of brown than the oversides. They occasionally stray from woodlands to nectar at wildflowers in moist meadows. The caterpillars feed on various woodland grasses and sedges.
Papilionidae (Swallowtail Butterflies)
These are large-sized butterflies. They are often black-and-yellow striped, or they are black with rows of yellow, blue, or red dots. The hindwings often have tails. Some species, such as the Battus philenor (Pipevine Swallowtail), are distasteful and toxic, while other species of swallowtail mimic this butterfly. The caterpillars tend to be smooth and green with markings from other colors. They have horn-like structures that appear when the caterpillar is disturbed, emitting a noxious smell. The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of plants, including members of the Carrot family, Wafer Ash and Prickly Ash, Spicebush and Sassafras, pipevines, wild cherries, and other trees. The pupae are angular-shaped, green or brown, and slung from a stem with a silk girdle.
Pieridae (White & Sulfur Butterflies)
These small- to medium-sized butterflies fall into two major subfamilies, which will be described. Pierinae (Whites): The White butterflies have white wings with black dots or bars. A few species, such as the Marbles and Orangetips, have greenish yellow or bright orange patterns on their wings. The larvae are predominantly green, and feed almost exclusively on members of the Mustard family. The green or brown pupae are slung from a stem with a silk girdle. Adult Whites often nectar at the flowers of members of the Mustard family. Coliadinae (Sulfurs): The Sulfur butterflies have yellow or orange-yellow wings, with black bars or dots. Their caterpillars are green, often with pale white or yellow lateral stripes. They feed on various legumes (Bean family). Some species do not successfully overwinter in central or northern Illinois, such as Colias cesonia (Dogface Sulfur), but migrate northward during the summer from areas in the southern United States. They are important visitors of some prairie wildflowers.
Sesiidae (Clearwing Moths)
These are small- to medium-sized moths that resemble wasps. They have long dark bodies, often with fine yellow rings, and narrow wings. The forewings are black, dark gray, or transparent, while the hindwings are always transparent. Clearwing Moths fly during the day and visit flowers for nectar. They not only look like wasps, but sometimes act like them as well however, there is no stinger. Their caterpillars bore into the roots, stems, or stumps of various plants, including horsenettle, ironweed and Joe-Pye weed, raspberries and blackberries, oak trees, ash trees, and fruit trees of the Rose family. A typical example is Carmenta bassiformis (Eupatorium Borer Moth).
Sphingidae (Sphinx Moths, Hawkmoths, Hummingbird Clearwings)
These are medium-sized to very large moths. They have long and rather fat bodies, narrow wings, and a fast flight with the capacity to hover before flowers. Sphinx Moths often fly during twilight or dawn, although some species fly during broad daylight. The wings usually display some pattern of grey, brown, and yellow, sometimes with markings of pink or blue/black eyes. However, Thysbe spp. (Hummingbird Clearwings) have partially transparent wings, and are among the members of this family that fly during the daytime. The caterpillars of Sphinx moths are large and predominantly green, sometimes with a "horn" on the posterior. They feed on many kinds of plants, including members of the Solanum family, Virginia Creeper and wild grapes, Wolfberry and Coralberry, Trumpet Creeper, willows, wild cherry, and other plants. Sphinx Moths are important pollinators of some wildflowers, including the evening primroses, bindweeds, honeysuckles, and the White-Fringed Prairie Orchid.