Butterflies and Moths

Did you know Lepidoptera means scale wings? This describes the overlaying tile pattern that is found on the wings of its members.

Both butterflies and moths belong in the order Lepidoptera – the second largest group in the insect world and definitely one of the most beloved. From their brightly colored wings to their interesting shape, design, and symmetry, they are enamored by naturalists worldwide. One of the most interesting things about butterflies and moths is their life cycle; in particular, the metamorphosis they undergo from larval caterpillar to winged adult.

Life Cycles

Both butterflies and moths begin life as eggs that are laid onto host plants by the adult female of the species.  When the eggs hatch into caterpillars they have reached a stage in the life cycle called the larval stage.  As caterpillars (larvae) they eat and grow, nourishing themselves on their host plant.  As they do this, they move through a series of developmental stages called instars.

Once fully matured, the larva develops into a pupa. During this stage the pupae are inactive and usually not able to move. This stage occurs between the larval and the adult stage, and it is when the adult structures of the insect are formed and the larval structures are broken down.  This occurs inside the encasing known as “chrysalis”. The term describes both the harder outer casing and the pupal stage of butterflies.  In moths, the chrysalis stage is often in the form of a softer casing such as silk and the structure is known as a “cocoon”. Emergence from the chrysalis marks the end of the pupal stage and the beginning of life as a winged adult.

The first thing many amateur lepidopterists do is learn how to identify the difference between a moth and a butterfly. Below we have given you some tips.  Hover your mouse over the pictures and you can learn too!

Butterfly vs. Moth….Can you tell the difference?

WINGS – When at rest, butterflies and moths hold their wings in different positions.

ANTENNAE – Although there are always exceptions, the shape of the antennae is a great identifier.

BEHAVIOR- In general, one species likes to travel during the day and one at night. Can you guess who works in the sun and who takes the night shift?

ANATOMY- If you spot a wing coupling device its a moth! The frenulum work as a coupling mechanism for the front and rear wings. This tip is more for the professional Lepidopterists among you!

Butterflies and moths in your Atlanta pollinator garden

Butterflies and moths will visit your garden as winged adults to consume nectar only. Unlike bees, they do not actively feed on pollen or use it to nourish their young. Butterflies in particular need warm temperatures and sunshine in order to fly. This is why a pollinator garden that incorporates warm rocks, paths, or landing places will attract many butterfly visitors.  For more information and tips on how to enhance the natural features in your pollinator garden to attract butterflies, scroll to the butterfly section of this page here. 
To see how you can introduce artificial elements into your garden that will provide shelter and nesting opportunities for Georgia butterflies, scroll to the butterfly section on this page here.

Most moths like to fly at night, becoming the most important group of pollinators for most night-blooming plants.  Moths also tend to be a little fuzzier or furrier and are therefore more likely to inadvertently collect pollen by brushing up against anthers whilst nectar foraging.

Life in the pollinator garden for butterflies and moths changes depending on what part of the life cycle they are in. As caterpillars equipped with biting mouth parts, they live and chew through leaves on their host plants. As adults with wings and mouth parts now developed for sucking liquids, they fly and forage for nectar from many different species.  Adults (especially males) can also be found on the ground near wet mud or small pools of water, where they draw nutrients and minerals.

To see what host and nectar plants we advise you plant in your Atlanta butterfly friendly garden visit the species spotlight page.

Generally in Georgia you will see butterflies beginning to emerge in your gardens around July and flutter through your area through to the end of September, depending on seasonal weather and the species you are attracting. We will feature 5 species on this page that are more common in the metro Atlanta area. Please check the recommended links at the bottom of this page for a more extensive list.  Remember its always fun to identify and learn about the visitors in your garden!

1. Monarch Butterfly 


Photo Credit Flckr user: Smart Destinations

Common Name Monarch Butterfly
Scientific Name Danaus plexippus
Identification Bright orange with black lines and a slow wing beat. It is one of the most easily identified species in the US.  Yellow, brown, and white can be seen on the wings as well
Caterpillar hosts Common milkweed, swamp milkweed, and showy milkweed
Adult nectar plants Nectar from all milkweeds
Factoid There is a specific glycoside present in most milkweeds, the plants that are the exclusive host food for monarch caterpillars.  Upon ingestion of the host leaves, the compound is stored inside the caterpillar and still present in winged adults. These chemicals make the butterfly particularly “untasty” and cause an emetic reaction in most birds.
Chrysalis The outside of the chrysalis is actually clear. However it will look green in the beginning (because you are seeing the green caterpillar through the clear casing) and it will develop into brown and black as the caterpillar begins to pupate into an adult and develop these colorings.

2. Gulf Fritillary


Photo Credit: Vicki Deloach

Common Name Gulf Fritillary
Scientific Name Agraulis vanillae
Identification Bright orange with black markings. Three black encircled white dots on forewing leading edge. Underwings have iridescent silver spots
Caterpillar hosts Various passion vine species such as maypop and running pop
Adult nectar plants Lantana and verbena
Factoid The toxicity of the caterpillar protects it from predators. The black spines, although soft, also protect the butterfly from danger.
Chrysalis Brown, can be similar looking to a dead leaf

3.Cloudless Sulfur


Photo Credit: Vicki De Loach

Common Name Cloudless Sulphur
Scientific Name Phoebis sennae
Identification Adult wing span is 4.8-6.5 cm, usually bright yellow in color, although some summer forms are paler in color.
Caterpillar hosts Partridge pea, clovers, or other legumes
Adult nectar plants Feed from long tubed nectar species such as bougainvillea, lantana, hibiscus
Factoid Its genus is derived from Phoebe, a titan from greek mythology.
Chrysalis green or pink with yellow lines

4.Eastern Tiger Swallowtail


Photo Credit: Ken Slade

Common Name Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Scientific Name Papilio glaucus
Identification Male is yellow with black tiger stripes, female can have the same form or take the form of a darker black colour with black shadowed lines. Both female forms have bright iridescent chevrons on the hindwings
Caterpillar hosts Eggs are laid on Magnoliaceae and Roseaceae families
Adult nectar plants Nectar from wild cherry, lilac, and milk weed
Factoid Caterpillars rest on “silken mats” woven ontop of their host leaves
Chrysalis Varies, whitish colour to brown

5. Silver-Spotted Skipper


Photo Credit: Vicki De Loach

Common Name Silver-Spotted Skipper
Scientific Name Epargyreus clarus
Identification Brown-black, with lobed hindwings, translucent gold spots on forewing, and silvery stripes on hind wings
Caterpillar hosts Herbs, vines, trees, and shrubs from the pea family, including locust tree, wisteria and alfalfa
Adult nectar plants Milkweed, clover and everlasting pea; almost never visits yellow flowers
Factoid Females lay eggs near, but not on host plants.  Caterpillars have to find their own way to the host plants. This is very rare.
Chrysalis Brown, slightly pointed at one end

For a more extensive list of butterflies in Georgia please check out a complete list of Georgia butterflies here and here.