Backyard Butterflies


What’s your favorite butterfly? The big, bold pipevine swallowtail? Or maybe the tiny tailed-blue? Whatever their size, butterflies are basically insects. They have six legs and two pairs of wings. But everything from their life cycle to their eye-popping beauty makes them seem like magical creatures from another realm. Let’s get to know 10 Missouri butterflies you’re likely to see enchanting your backyard this summer.

Scaled for Flight

Butterflies and moths belong to a group of insects called Lepidoptera (leh-puh-dahp-tehr-uh). This means “scale wing.” Scales are the colored “dust” that rubs off on your fingers when you touch a butterfly’s wing. These scales protect and insulate the beautiful bugs and help the flow of air along their wings as they fly.

More Than Monarchs Migrate

Monarchs are famous for flying from central Mexico to Canada and back every year. Turns out some other kinds of butterflies fly south for the winter, too, although not as far.

How do other butterflies survive winter? They stay snug in their eggs or cocoons, often nestled in leaf litter. This is why it’s important to leave fall leaves in your yard until spring. Last fall’s leaves may harbor this spring’s butterflies!

Picky About Plants

Bet you didn’t know this: Butterflies can taste with their feet! Why? So they know immediately what kinds of plants they’ve landed on. This helps them quickly find the kind of host plants their eggs and caterpillars need to thrive.

You probably know that monarch caterpillars can only survive on milkweed plants. Other kinds of butterflies have their own host plants, too. Throughout this guide, you’ll learn the kinds of plants each featured butterfly needs for its eggs and caterpillars. Planting host plants will keep butterflies fluttering around your yard, summer after summer.

Masters of Change

A butterfly starts life as a tiny egg laid on or near a particular kind of plant. After a few days, a hungry little caterpillar pops out. It chomps and chomps its host plant, growing and changing its appearance until it’s a mature larva. Then it attaches to a twig or other sturdy structure and sheds its skin. The remaining soft body forms a protective shell called a chrysalis or a cocoon.

Inside the chrysalis, the larva turns to goo. Over the next several days, different groups of cells change the goo into eyes, wings, and other adult body parts. When it’s ready, the butterfly wriggles out. It pauses, letting its wet, wrinkled wings “bloom” into their final shape. Then, it flies off to find a mate and start its life cycle — known as metamorphosis (met-uh-more-fo-sis) — all over again.

American Lady

  • Adults love thistles and other flowers but will also sip tree sap and the juices of rotting fruit — yum! Caterpillars live inside tents they build out of silk and eat leaves of sunflower-family members.
  • When seeking mates, American lady males will defend their territories against other males.

Common Buckeye

  • Daisies, milkweeds, and mints attract the adults, and caterpillars feed on many kinds of plants, including the common plantain, which grows in nearly everyone’s yard.
  • Like monarchs, these butterflies and their caterpillars harbor yucky-tasting toxins from their host plants.

Hackberry Emperor

  • While the hackberry tree may host this butterfly’s caterpillars, the adults have a taste for salt and may land on your arm to sample your sweat. But don’t feel too special. Other favorite flavors include animal droppings and mud.
  • The forked features on the caterpillar’s head resemble miniature deer antlers.


  • Watch for adults flitting among milkweeds, asters, and sunflowers. Check milkweed stems and leaves for tiny white eggs or striped caterpillars.
  • Keep monarchs coming back to your yard every year by planting native milkweeds. Check for local native plant sales at

Sachem Skipper

  • This grass-loving butterfly is common in late summer. You might see its dark green caterpillars in lawn grasses.
  • Skippers are a kind of butterfly named for their skipping flight.

Eastern Tailed-Blue

  • Common in prairies and yards, adults flutter low to the ground looking for small flowers to sip. Caterpillars feed on the flowers, seeds, and leaves of clovers.
  • Adults spend the night in places where they basked in the sunlight.

Black Swallowtail

  • Adults visit just about any kind of flower and often sip moisture from mud puddles. Look for eggs and caterpillars on members of the carrot family, including dill.
  • Some gardeners plant extra dill to keep black swallowtails from laying eggs on their carrot plants.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

  • Adults sip nectar from blazing star, buttonbush, and other blooming plants. Look for the bright green caterpillars on apple, cherry, and tulip trees.
  • When disturbed, the tiger swallowtail caterpillar rears back and sticks out a stinky, orange, forked gland that puts off predators.

Cabbage White

  • Your parents may complain about this butterfly’s caterpillars, which gobble up garden cabbages. But the adult is a nectar-sipping pollinator, so it helps out in the garden, too.
  • Accidentally introduced from Europe more than 100 years ago, this winter-hardy butterfly is one of the first to appear in spring.

Clouded Sulphur

  • Adults are easy to please and will sip nectar from clovers, milkweeds, dandelions, and thistles. Caterpillars love peas, beans, and clover.
  • These wide-spread pollinators are on the menu for birds and other insect-eaters.

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