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Extension > Garden > Yard and Garden > Landscaping > Butterfly gardening > Life history of a few butterflies

Life history of a few butterflies

By Vera Krischik
Copyright © 2013 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

We can learn much about butterfly gardening by examining the life history of some specific butterflies. More details on caterpillar host plants of common butterflies found, for instance, in Minnesota are given in Table 1.

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillars feed on dill, parsley and a few related species in the plant family Umbelliferae. Their larvae accumulate toxins from the host in their body and these chemicals can be found in the adult butterfly as well. Caterpillars and adults are strikingly colored as a way to advertise their toxicity and distastefulness to birds.

Black Swallowtail (Papilionidae: Black swallowtail): larvae feeding on parsley (left); larvae feeding on another host, dill (center); and an adult feeding on zinnia nectar (right).

An adult Mourning Cloak (Nymphalidae: Mourning cloak) feeds on the nectar of spring flowering plants such as this Amelanchier.

Some butterflies have only one generation a year. The pupa overwinters and the butterfly emerges in the spring. Only a few, such as Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) over winter as adults. Mourning Cloaks are the first butterflies seen in the spring, feeding on nectar from shrubs such as Amelanchier. Their caterpillars feed on a variety of common trees, such as willows, poplars and elm. They overwinter in barns, tree holes or other protected areas.

As with the Black Swallowtail, the Papilionidae: Tiger swallowtail (top) and Papilionidae: Zebra swallowtail (bottom), of the same family, are characterized by a tail on each hind wing which is reminiscent of a swallow's feathers.

The American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) do not overwinter in Minnesota but migrate from the south in the spring. Painted ladies are attracted to open areas with low vegetation and a variety of flowers. The larvae feed on everlastings (Anaphalis spp. ) as well as thistles. The adults prefer pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) and other composites, such as black-eyed Susan and sunflowers.

The Monarch (Danaus plexippus) migrates south for the winter. After overwintering in the highlands of Mexico, the overwintering generation flies north to the latitude of Texas and lays eggs. These eggs hatch and the larvae feed. The pupae turn into adult monarchs in 10 to 14 days, and it's this generation that arrives in Minnesota in May and June. During the summer, the migrant adults lay eggs that produce the generation of monarchs that return to Mexico in the fall.

Table 1. Some common butterflies and their caterpillar food plants.

Butterfly species Caterpillar food plant
Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae)
Black Swallowtail Parsley family - both wild and cultivated: carrot, dill, parsley, and parsnip
Spicebush Swallowtail Spicebush, sassafras
Tiger Swallowtail Aspen, cherry, birch
Snout Butterfly (Libytheidae)
Common Snout Butterfly Hackberry
Brush-footed Family (Nymphalidae)
Great Spangled and Idalia Fritillary Violets
Buckeye Plantains, gerardias, toadflax, snapdragons, false loosestrifes
Painted Lady Thistles
Red Admiral Nettles, false nettle
Viceroy and Red-Spotted Purple Willows, especially black willow, pussy willow, poplars, plums, cherries
Hackberry Butterfly Hackberry
Monarch Butterfly Milkweeds, butterfly weed
Mourning Cloak Willow, birch, aspen, maple, elm
Sulphur Family (Pieridae)
Common (clouded) Sulphur Clover, alfalfa
Dogface Butterfly Lead plant, false indigo, prairie clover
Coppers, Blues, Harvesters, Metalmarks Families (Lycaenidae, Riodinidae)
American Copper Sorrel
Sylvan Hairstreak Willow
Common Hairstreak Mallow family, rose & marsh mallows, hollyhock
Gray Hairstreak Hawthorn
Skipper Family (Hesperidae)
Blazing Star Skipper Grasses
Source: University of Minnesota James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History. Used with permission.

These nineteenth century woodcuts illustrate portions of the life cycles of butterflies and moths.

In this illustration, "A" is an adult butterfly nectar feeding. "B" shows females ovipositing (egg-laying). "C" represents several instars, or stages, of larval feeding and growth. "D" is the pupa (chrysalis of a butterfly). "E" is a newly emerged butterfly adult drying its wings.

In this illustration, of moths, "A" is an adult resting with its wings folded. "B" and "C" represent two larval instars. "D" is the hairy cocoon of the moth.

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