“What kinds of butterflies can you find in Montana?”
I love watching butterflies in my neighborhood! It’s amazing to see the incredible variety of different colors, patterns, and sizes.
There are hundreds of kinds of butterflies in Montana! Since it would be impossible to list them all in one article, I chose the most common and exciting species to share with you today. 🙂
Today, you’ll learn about 19 kinds of butterflies found in Montana.
#1. Red Admiral
- Vanessa atalanta
- Red Admirals have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
- The coloring is dark brown with a reddish circular band and white spots. The underside of the back wings looks similar to bark.
- The caterpillars are pinkish-gray to charcoal with white spots. They have spines along the back that resemble hairs.
The Red Admiral is the most widespread butterfly in Montana!
Look for this beautiful butterfly near the edge of forests in moist habitats. Red Admiral Butterflies have a unique favorite food – they love fermented fruit! If you’d like to attract them, try placing overripe cut fruit in a sunny spot in your yard.
Red Admirals are migratory butterflies. They fly south toward warmer climates in winter, and then move north again in late spring, where food is more plentiful.
If you’re looking for a butterfly in Montana that’s easy to observe, you’re in luck! Red Admirals are very calm and easy to approach and frequently land on humans!
RELATED: How to Attract Butterflies: 17 Tips!
#2. Painted Lady
- Vanessa cardui
- Painted Lady butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
- The coloring is pinkish-orange, with dark brown to black markings near the wingtips and white spots inside the black markings.
- The caterpillars’ coloring is variable, ranging from greenish-yellow to charcoal. Most have light-colored spots.
Look for Painted Lady butterflies in Montana in open areas that are quiet and undisturbed, like roadsides, pastures, and gardens. This species migrates south to Mexico over winter and returns in the spring.
The population of Painted Lady butterflies can be drastically different from year to year. It’s common for them not to be seen for years in a row in some places, then suddenly show up in more significant numbers.
The Painted Lady is the only butterfly that mates year-round! Because of its constant migration pattern, it spends its entire life in suitable areas for its eggs to hatch.
- Danaus plexippus
- Monarch butterflies have a wingspan of 3.5 to 4 inches.
- Their recognizable coloring is a “stained glass” pattern of orange with black veins. White dots line the outside edge of the wings.
- Caterpillars are plump, with black, white, and yellow bands and tentacles on each end of its body.
Monarchs are easily the most recognized butterfly in Montana!
They are famous for their color pattern and migration. Look for Monarchs anywhere there is milkweed, which is the only food source their caterpillars eat.
Most people are familiar with the declining population of Monarchs. However, you might not know that this indicates an overall population decline of many other pollinating species like bees. Planting local milkweed species to attract Monarchs will also help these other species.
During migration, usually in mid-September, you may even see groups of hundreds flying south!
- Limenitis archippus
- Viceroy butterflies have a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.25 inches.
- Their coloring is deep orange with black edges and veins and white spots on the black border.
- The caterpillar is a mix of green, brown, and cream colors. It has two “horns” on its head that look like knobby antennae.
The first thing you might notice about the Viceroy butterfly is that it’s almost identical to the Monarch! The easiest way to tell them apart is to look for the black line on the bottom wing. This line is present in Viceroys, but not Monarchs.
Even though these two butterflies are similar in appearance, their caterpillars look remarkably different. Viceroy caterpillars are greenish-brown, spiny, and certainly not as beautiful as Monarch caterpillars.
I think of them as the “ugly duckling” of caterpillars, but they’re one of the prettiest butterflies in Montana!
One other key difference between these two species is that Viceroys don’t migrate. Instead, the caterpillars roll up and hibernate in leaves and emerge during the next breeding season.
#5. Mourning Cloak
- Nymphalis Antiopa
- Mourning Cloaks have a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches.
- The coloring is black with an iridescent sheen. A yellow border and a row of purple spots mark the outer edge of the wings.
- Caterpillars are black with white specks and a row of red spots on the back.
Mourning Cloak butterflies are most often found near deciduous forests. However, their habitat includes many developed areas like suburban yards, parks, and golf courses.
You might have a hard time finding this butterfly in Montana.
Even though it’s fairly widespread, its preference for cold weather and solitary habits make it hard to spot even for an avid butterfly enthusiast! In addition, it’s so well-camouflaged when its wings are folded that you might miss one right in front of you.
Mourning Cloaks are often the first butterflies to become active in the spring! In fact, some adults are even active through winter on warm days, when snow is still on the ground.
They’re also one of the longest-lived butterflies around, with some individuals living up to ten months!
#6. Pearl Crescent
- Phyciodes tharos
- Pearl Crescent butterflies have a wingspan of 1.25 to 1.75 inches.
- Their coloring is bright orange with black borders, spots, and lines. The pattern created by the black markings is similar to lace.
- Caterpillars are dark brown with cream stripes and spines all over their bodies.
Look for Pearl Crescent butterflies in northeastern Montana near moist ground.
They prefer open, sunny habitats but many locations suit their needs, including forest edges, fields, meadows, and gardens.
The Pearl Crescent caterpillar’s preferred host is the Aster plant. Any flowering plants in your yard will attract this beautiful butterfly, but for best results, try to find one that’s native to your area.
When the caterpillars grow into butterflies, they will feed on the nectar of the Asters as well!
#7. Variegated Fritillary
- Variegated Fritillary butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.25 inches.
- The coloring of this species is tawny brown to burnt orange with black dots and lines. The outer edge of the wings is also lined in black.
- Caterpillars are reddish-orange, with white stripes that run the length of the body and black spines.
Look for these butterflies in eastern Montana in meadows, open lots, and fields.
Plant flowers like butterfly weed, mint, and sunflowers to attract them to your garden. Ornamental plants like violets, pansies, and passionflower serve as hosts for their caterpillars.
The Variegated Fritillary’s chrysalis is one of the most beautiful of all the butterflies in Montana. This protective shell is where the caterpillar transforms into the adult butterfly. Its pearly white color and shiny gold spikes make it look like an expensive jeweled pendant!
#8. Great Spangled Fritillary
- Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies have a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.5 inches.
- Their coloring is orange with black lines and dots that form a web-like pattern on their wings. In addition, the undersides of their wings have silvery white dots outlined in black.
The Great Spangled Fritillary is one of many butterflies in Montana that prefers open, sunny areas like pastures and meadows.
It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of them in large milkweed or violet fields!
This species doesn’t migrate; instead, its caterpillars hibernate over winter and emerge in the spring. That happens around the same time as the new growth on their host violet plants appears.
Interestingly, male Great Spangled Fritillaries die weeks before females, right after mating. The females then feed for another two to three weeks and lay eggs before also dying off.
#9. Common Wood-Nymph
- Cercyonis pegala
- Common Wood-Nymphs have a wingspan of 2 to 3 inches.
- Coloring can vary greatly, but generally, this species is shades of brown with dark eyespots.
- Caterpillars are yellow-green with dark green stripes and white hairs.
Common Wood-Nymphs are found in many different habitats, including open forests, meadows, agricultural fields, and salt marshes. Their caterpillars hatch late in fall and hibernate through the winter.
Look for this species in late summer and early fall since it’s most active this time of year.
Adult Common Wood-Nymphs occasionally eat flower nectar but prefer to feed on rotting fruit or decaying plants.
This is one of few species whose host plant (which the caterpillar eats) is grass. Kentucky Bluegrass, one of its favorites, is also a popular lawn grass. So, you may not even need to plant anything new to attract this species!
#10. Gray Hairstreak
- Gray Hairstreak butterflies have a wingspan of 1 to 1.5 inches.
- Their coloring is slate gray with a single bright orange spot on each lower wing. Below, their wings are light gray with a black and white stripe.
Look for Gray Hairstreak butterflies in open areas like roadsides, unused pasture, and rural meadows. Their caterpillars use many plants as hosts, so they’re common across many different habitats.
Gray Hairstreaks are one of a few butterflies in Montana with thin, long wing tails that resemble hairs.
This adaptation is a defensive strategy that draws predators away from the butterfly’s body. By mimicking a head with antennae and using its eyespots as a distraction, Gray Hairstreaks give themselves time to escape!
#11. Banded Hairstreak
- Banded Hairstreak butterflies have a wingspan of 1 to 1.25 inches.
- Their coloring varies from brown to slate gray. In addition, they have black-bordered red dots along the outer edge of the wings, white stripes, and a blue patch near the wing tails.
Look for Banded Hairstreak butterflies in forested areas or sunny clearings near woods. Adult butterflies are drawn to nectar plants, so it should be pretty easy to attract this species if you live near a wooded area.
Planting dogbane or meadowsweet will help you have more sightings.
Adults are active for about four weeks in early summer, and they mate a single time during this active season. The eggs survive through summer, fall, and winter and hatch into caterpillars in the spring.
The caterpillars feed on oak, walnut, and hickory trees. Therefore, any area with these species is an excellent place to spot the Banded Hairstreak!
#12. Cabbage White
- Pieris rapae
- Cabbage White Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.25 to 2 inches.
- The wings are light greenish to white, with black wing tips and black dots in the center of each wing. Males have one black dot on each side, and females have two.
- Caterpillars, sometimes called Cabbage Worms, are dark green with a light green stripe along the back.
Cabbage White butterflies are well-suited to almost any habitat in Montana.
The only areas they avoid are dense forests with little room to fly. You can even see this species if you live in the city since they often live in very large metropolitan areas!
Look for Cabbage Whites in the summer, when they are most active and breeding. Their caterpillars, sometimes called Cabbage Worms, are a pest because they often overtake and eat cabbage, kale, nasturtium, and other brassica plants.
If you have a vegetable garden and see Cabbage Whites, you should pay extra attention to your plants to ensure these hungry insects don’t ruin them! In fact, Cabbage White butterflies are invasive in Montana. This non-native species was transported here through the food and agricultural trade.
Since it’s so well-suited to our climate, its population has exploded and it’s now considered one of the most damaging invasive species to crops.
#13. Orange Sulphur
- Colias eurytheme
- Orange Sulphur Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.5 to 2.5 inches.
- Their coloring is bright yellow-orange with black borders on the wings and irregular black spots.
Look for Orange Sulfur butterflies in Montana along sunny roadsides, meadows, and gardens.
Its preferred food and host plant is Alfalfa, which is how it got the nickname “Alfalfa butterfly”.
The easiest way to recognize an Orange Sulphur is by its flight pattern. They have an erratic, jerky flying style and usually stay low to the ground.
You’re likely to see this abundant and widespread species in urban and suburban environments during the spring and summer.
#14. Clouded Sulphur
- Colias philodice
- Clouded Sulphur butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.75 inches.
- This species has two color forms, one white with a light green cast, and one yellow. Both morphs have a red-ringed eyespot and pinkish borders on the wings.
Clouded Sulphurs are some of the most common butterflies in Montana!
This is because they’re prolific breeders and are at home in almost any habitat.
Look for them along roadsides, parks, and home gardens. They are often found in the same area as their closely related cousins, the Orange Sulphur. However, the erratic, jerky flight style of Orange Sulphurs set them apart from most other butterfly species. To properly identify a Clouded Sulphur, look for a “wobbly” flying butterfly.
There are two distinct morphs of the Clouded Sulphur. The white morph is primarily white with a greenish tint, and the yellow morph is almost entirely yellow. Interestingly, ONLY females display the white color morph, and males are always yellow.
#15. Common Checkered-Skipper
- Burnsius Communis
- Adult wingspans are 0.75-1.25 inches.
- Their coloring is faded white with tan-colored bands and a black or brown edge on the hindwing. From above, they have a distinctive black and white checkered pattern.
- Females are darker in color.
- Males are extensively covered with long, bluish-white hairs on the body.
It’s easy to see how this butterfly in Montana got its name.
The Common Checkered-Skipper has a distinctive block pattern on its wings that looks like a checkerboard.
Common Checkered-Skipper Range Map
Its favorite host plant is Mallow, and it prefers pastures, open fields, and disturbed sites. This species is often seen next to roads.
Males search out a suitable female to mate with, and then she lays her pale green eggs on the soft parts of the hostplant. Once the caterpillar emerges, it feeds on the host plant and curls the leaves around it for winter protection.
#16. Checkered White
- Pontia Protodice
- Adult wingspans are 1-2 inches.
- Males are white dark grey markings on the forewings.
- Females are grayish-white with dark checkers on both the fore- and hindwings.
- Both sexes have white hindwings with gray, yellow, and brown markings.
Checkered White butterflies are common in Montana.
One of the most fascinating characteristics of this butterfly is its ability to use UV signals to communicate. These amazing insects can tell the difference between males and females of their species based on the UV radiation they give off! If a female notices that there are a lot of other females, she will migrate to a less dense population in hopes of attracting a mate.
Checkered White Range Map
Checkered White females lay their eggs on the host plants’ fruits and sometimes the stems. The larvae prefer to eat the flower or fruit of the host plant instead of the leaves. This butterfly prefers open and sunny areas like deserts and plains, and it’s often found in vacant lots, airports, railroads, and dry grassland.
#17. Anise Swallowtail
- Papilio Zelicaon
- Adult wingspans are 2-3 inches.
- Their coloring is yellow with black bands on the edges of their forewings. The body is mainly black, with lateral yellow stripes along the abdomen.
- Their hindwings are largely yellow, with a yellowish orange eyespot.
Anise Swallowtails prefer open areas both inland and on the coast. These butterflies in Montana aren’t picky about where they live!
They use a mating strategy called “hill-topping.” This is where a male perches on a mountain cliff, hilltop, or high foliage and waits for a female to find him. That’s one way to conserve your energy while finding a partner!
Anise Swallowtail males are aggressive, especially when breeding, and they defend their territory by attacking other males to secure a potential mate.
#18. Two-Tailed Swallowtail
- Papilio Multicaudata
- Adult wingspans are 3-6.5 inches.
- From above, their coloring is yellow with black stripes. The hindwings have blue marks and a tiny orange eyespot, as well as thin black stripes and two tails per wing.
- Females have additional blue markings and a brighter yellow color.
Two-Tailed Swallowtail butterflies in Montana prefer areas with open space and plenty of sunlight. Look for them in foothills, canyons, valleys, woodlands, roadsides, parks, cities, and suburb gardens.
Males of this species spend their entire life finding a female to mate with due to their short lifespan. If it takes a long time to find a mate, males search for nutrients in rotten material, dirt, and sometimes feces, an odd behavior called mud puddling.
Although it’s one of the most recognizable features, the Two-tailed Swallowtail doesn’t need its tails to fly. Instead, they’re often used to escape predators. When a predator attacks the Swallowtail and grabs onto its tails, they break off, and the butterfly can escape.
#19. Weidemeyer’s Admiral
- Limenitis Weidemeyerii
- Adult wingspans are 2.25-3.75 in.
- Their coloring is white and black with a row of white dots spread across the wing. Seen from below, the Weidemeyer’s Admiral is brown with white shapes on the wings.
It can be hard to spot this shy butterfly in Montana!
Weidemeyer’s Admirals prefer forests that seasonally shed leaves. This unique, easily spooked butterfly is also found near canyons, shrubby streams, and ravines.
Males are territorial and spend most of the day waiting to intercept a female. They perch six to eight feet above the ground on trees or shrubs and attack other males who come too close. Occasionally the male will patrol his territory to find a female.
After mating, the female will find a suitable host plant and lay her eggs on the tip of its leaves. The Weidemeyer’s Admiral is easily identified due to the unique patterns on its wings that look like military insignia.
Do you need more help identifying butterflies in Montana?
Try this field guide!
Which of these butterflies have you seen in Montana?
Leave a comment below!
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