Iowa Butterflies

May 14, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Iowa Butterflies

Butterflies are beautiful insects with delicate wings, intricate details and colors that range from soft to vibrant. They are important pollinators for many flowers and plants that are so vital to our ecosystem and food supply needs. It is no wonder why butterflies are so enchanting; beginning life encased in a tiny, hidden shell. Then they quickly transform during each stage of their life, finally unfolding their wings into their adult form. Summer marks the height of the butterfly season and many can be seen flying from June until autumn. This post will give you more information about butterflies,  along with some common and favorite species that can be found in Iowa.


Eastern Swallowtail Black SwallowtailBlack Swallowtail

One of the easiest butterflies to spot and the largest butterfly in Iowa. Males are yellow with black, tiger-like stripes on the front edge of their upper wings. Females are dimorphic, being completely covered in black and marked with pale blue boarder at the base of the wings. These swallowtails are diurnal and usually solitary, although males will participate in a behavior called “puddling” when they congregate in large numbers on mud, damp gravel, or puddles. This is when they sip dissolved minerals and salts. This butterfly particularly enjoys pink, purple, and red flowers, and is a wonderful visitor to any garden. Adults eat the nectar of flowers from a variety of plants including butterfly bush, milkweed, Japanese honeysuckle, phlox, lilac, iron weed, and wild cherry. They beat their wings rapidly when feeding on nectar, as a balancing technique. Eastern tiger swallowtail larvae eat the leaves of a variety of woody plants including wild cherry, tulip, birch, ash, cottonwood, and willow.


White Cabbage Cabbage white butterflyCabbage white butterfly

Cabbage butterflies are very common and widespread, visiting flowers and fluttering overhead. When the cabbage butterfly lands and folds its white wings closed, you will notice a black spot on the upper wings. Males will have one spot and females have two. Adults will feed on flower nectar from a  wide array of plants including mustards, dandelion, red clover, asters, and mints. Caterpillar larvae feed on many plants in the mustard family and occasionally some in the caper family.



Fritillary Fritillary ButterflyFritillary ButterflyNortheast Iowa

There are a few different native species of Fritillary that are found in Iowa. They rely on grassy, prairies as their habitat. Each fall females have to lay their eggs in tall grass prairies. The eggs hatch in late fall and the new caterpillars eat their egg. They will eat nothing else until the following spring.  This means the caterpillars have to survive an Iowa winter folded up in the leaf litter on the ground, having only eaten their egg shell and nothing else until the following spring when the violets finally come up out of the ground.  That makes this one tough caterpillar.  In early spring, the caterpillar eats the violet leaves and goes through six instars, this is also unique as most species of butterflies go through five instars (time in between molts) before pupating.  Adults emerge in early summer and feed on nectar from many species of flowers including milkweeds, thistles, ironweed, dogbane, mountain laurel, verbena, vetch, bergamot, red clover, joe-pye weed, and purple coneflower. These butterflies are long-lived and many individuals that are found in late August and September are very worn with frayed and even missing parts and wings. 


Red Admiral ButterflyRed Admiral ButterflyNortheast Iowa Red Admiral

Red Admirals are frequently found in parks, yards and moist, wet areas like marshes and fields. Red Admirals are migratory butterflies, returning to Iowa in early spring to lay new eggs. This butterfly enjoys many types of environments and has a strong affinity to flowers. The males are territorial and many times can be found in the same location day to day. The undersides of the wings are a mottled brown and tan with a curved bright red color on the upper side of the brown/black wings. Their host plants include nettles, pellitory, and false nettle. Red Admiral adult butterflies enjoy fruit and flower nectar. Fruit can be added to a garden to help attract Red Admirals as well as other fruit loving butterflies. 



Painted Lady

Painted Ladies are classic migrators and the wide range of available host plants is what helps make the painted ladies so widely distributed. During the spring, these butterflies can be either invisible, scarce, or incredibly abundant as they migrate northward from Northern Mexico through the western and mid-western United States and to Canada. They begin its life cycle as an egg that is the size of a pin head. Eggs are laid on thistle, mallow, or hollyhock leaves. Adults can mate in about a week after emerging; adults only live about 2 weeks. The male Painted butterfly tends to be very territorial as it’s his job to find a safe place for the female to lay her eggs. Once he does he will defend this place until the female butterfly appears. Adults sip sweet thistle and clover nectar.


Mourning Cloak

The Mourning cloak butterfly is one of Iowa’s first woodland butterflies that emerge in spring, due to the fact that it overwinters as an adult. Since it hibernates over the winter, the Mourning Cloak is also one of our longest lived butterflies, maxing out at about ten months. The Mourning cloak has unique properties to survive the brutal winters. Once, they emerge the butterflies will regularly bask in the sunlight to warm up their bodies for flight. Males will wait in sunny, open spots until a female flutters by. Courtship happens mid-air. The females lay all her eggs together on a host plant. Suitable host plants include willow, elm, cottonwood, and hackberry. The adults preferred food sources of tree sap, rotting fruit, and animal scat. The butterflies can be found frequently in woodland areas, but they also thrive in city neighborhoods that provide the necessary food and shelter.


Silver-spotted SkipperSilver-spotted Skipper Silver spotted Skipper

 One of our largest, most widespread and recognizable skippers. They frequent edges of forests, swamps, brushy areas, and other open areas where nectar plants are found. Adults have long "tongues" and feed on nectar from a variety of flowers, mud, and occasionally on animal feces. Like most skippers, silver-spotted skipper larvae live in leaf shelters. The larvae feed on leaves of herbs, vines, shrubs, and trees in the pea family. The Silver-spotted Skipper almost never visits yellow flowers but favors blue, red, pink, purple, and sometimes white and cream-colored ones. These include everlasting pea, common milkweed, red clover, button bush, blazing star, and thistles.




Comma and Question Marks Question Mark ButterflyQuestion Mark Butterfly

The Comma is another butterfly that overwinters in Iowa. Overwintered adults fly and lay eggs in the spring until the end of April. The summer form emerges and flies from May-September, laying eggs that develop into the winter form. These adults appear in September or October and soon seek shelter in which to overwinter. They can be found in deciduous woodlands, marshes, swamps and other water sources. The Eastern Comma rarely visits flowers, feeding instead at fermenting fruit, tree sap, and animal droppings. Males perch on leaves or tree trunks to watch for females, flying aggressively to chase other insects or even birds. Eggs are laid singly or in stacks under host plant leaves or stems. Caterpillars will feed on American elm, stinging nettle, false nettle, and wood nettle. 








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