Identifying Butterflies

A few weeks back I noticed a really cool idea on the blog ‘Nerd In The Brain.’ They plan to set challenges every couple of weeks as an opportunity to go out and learn something new. The one that I saw was to spot insects in the garden. I wanted to give this a go, but didn’t have much luck finding anything interesting and quickly gave up. I thought back to the post after visiting a butterfly house however. Normally I’d label my photos with boring titles such as ‘butterfly on a flower,’ but instead I decided to try and identify the subjects. I actually found it to be quite fascinating once I started to read up about it.

How To Identify A Butterfly

There are many different species of butterfly and they can look similar, especially in flight, so it can be a challenge to identify them. Ideally, you need to spend a bit of time looking for field marks, such as shape, colour and patterns, while they are still. The edges of the wings can vary from smooth to wavy to pointy and with tails on the end. The patterns can be chequered, spotted, veined or include bands of colours. The way the wings rest can also be an indication as to the type of butterfly, some lie flat while others at a slight angle. Check the ventral side (below the insect) of the wing too.

There are different families and sub-families of butterflies to look out for, each with its own distinctive qualities:

  • Papilionidae – These are usually large and colourful. A majority of them are Swallowtails, named so for the distinctive tail on their hind wing. They can be found in every region except for Antarctica.
  • Nymphalidae – This is the largest of the butterfly families. They are medium to large in size and have colourful wings that lie flat when resting. The ventral side is usually dull and fairly plain in contrast, giving them the appearance of dead leaves. Most of them have a reduced pair of forelegs. This family includes Monarchs and Angelwings with the greatest number found in the tropics.
  • Pieridae – These are medium-sized and vary in colour from white to orange. Many also have black markings or spots on their wings. The colouring is caused by waste products in the body. They may also have ultraviolet markings, used during courtship. This family includes Whites and Sulphurs and they are mostly found in the tropics.
  • Riodinidae – Small to medium sized. Their wings come in vibrant structural colours of brown, red, yellow, orange and white and may also include metallic markings. Males also have reduced forelegs. Examples include Duke of Burgundy and Palmers Metalmark. They are found in the neotropics.
  • Lycaenidae – Small and quick, with brightly coloured, sometimes iridescent, wings. They have slender bodies and narrow heads and their antennae is sometimes striped in appearance (usually with white bands.) This family includes Hairstreaks and Harvesters and they inhabit temperate and tropical areas.
  • Hesperiidae – Small to medium in size with duller colours such as brown, orange and cream. They also have thicker and hairier thoraxes with smaller wings giving them a moth like appearance. When resting the forewings and hindwings rest on different planes. The antennae also have a curl or hook at the end as opposed to the usual rounded club shape. They have a quick dart like movement. Not always considered to be true butterflies, example include include Skippers, Duskywings and Cloudywings. A majority of them live in the tropics.

Sometimes moths and butterflies can be confused, but they have distinct differences. Butterflies tend to be thinner and smoother while moths have thicker and hairier bodies. Moths also have feathery antennae and are usually duller in colour. When resting their wings are held flat against their bodies as opposed to butterflies that hold them vertically. It’s also important to consider that there can be differences between the sexes such as colour, but the patterns usually remain similar.

My Butterfly Photos

Small Postman


Also known as The Red Postman. A member of the Nymphalidae family, found in Mexico to northern South America. They feed on passion flower leaves, which causes toxic chemicals to store up in their bodies as a way to deter predators.

Blue Morpho


A member of the Nymphalidae family, found in Central and South America. The underside of their wings are dull in contrast to the top, allowing for greater camouflage. When they flap their wings they seem to appear and disappear in a process known as “flashing.”

Banded Purple Wings


A member of the Nymphalidae family, found in Central America and northern South America. The underside is silvery-grey to camouflage on bark and branches.



A member of the Nymphalidae, found in South and South-East Asia. They are a fast flying butterfly, flapping their wings between the horizontal position and a few degrees below. They may also glide.



A member of the Nymphalidae family, found throughout South America to Arizona. They got their name from the distinct cracking noise they make during territorial or mating displays.



Named after the mineral malachite for the similar green colour on the wings. A member of the Nymphalidae family, found throughout Central and northern South America where it is one of the most common species.



Scientific name is Greta Oto, and the Spannish name is Espejitos – meaning little mirrors. A member of the Nymphalidae family, found from Mexico through Panama and Colombia. While other butterflies use patterns and colour to confuse or ward off predators, the Glasswing succeeds by being difficult to see. The wings are transparent because they barely reflect any light. There are 64 species of Glasswing in total.

Small Tortoiseshell


I usually struggle to photograph the butterflies in my garden because they flap around so quickly, but I did manage to get this one of a Small Tortoiseshell. It’s a member of the Nymphalidae family, found throughout temperate Europe, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Siberia, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. It’s also the National butterfly of Denmark.

See more photos on Flikr, Red Bubble and 500px.

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About wallcat

I have a strong passion for computing. In particular programming for which I am able to use a variety of languages including C++, Visual C#, Blitz Basic, Actionscript 2.0, Python and Lua. I also enjoy web-design and have some knowledge of HTML/CSS, PHP/SQL and Javascript. As well as programming I have a strong background in art and enjoy drawing in my spare time. When I’m not sat at my computer I like to keep fit by going to the gym or using my exercise ball.

9 responses to “Identifying Butterflies”

  1. nerdinthebrain says :

    Swoon! This post is so amazing, and I’m ever-so-honored to have been even a tiny part of the inspiration! I love all of the butterfly information, and your pictures are fantastic. So, so awesome! 😀

    • wallcat says :

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I think I’ll continue to learn more about the subjects I’m photographing from now on. I’ve been considering looking up what plants to put in the garden to attract more butterflies too.

  2. Hannah G says :

    Lovely! And so much work to identify them all, I’m impressed (and slightly jealous). 😉

    • wallcat says :

      Thanks, it did take me a lot of searching Google to work it out. If only there’d been more interesting activity happening in my own garden. I’m really keen to try and attract more butterflies now.

  3. Lori L MacLaughlin says :

    Beautiful photos! I’ve always loved butterflies. I know the names of a very few common ones, but I’ve never delved into researching others I’ve seen. Thanks for an informative post!

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