Spring Forward with Lovely Lepidopteras

By Sandy Masuo

Western swallowtail on Azalea (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Western swallowtail on Azalea (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Butterflies and moths belong to an order of insects called “lepidoptera” or “scale wing,” a reference to the minuscule scales that cover their bodies and create the colorful patterns on their wings. All butterflies and moths complete a similar life cycle: they hatch from eggs that have been carefully laid on particular types of plants, then as larvae (caterpillars) they feed voraciously on those host plants until they are ready to pupate. The caterpillar either attaches itself to a surface or burrows under the soil (mostly the case with moths) and then molts one final time to become a pupa or chrysalis. A complete metamorphosis takes place inside this protective shell and when it is complete, the adult winged insect emerges.

Adult butterflies feed on nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants, and you can help them by growing plants with different bloom times so food is always available in your garden. In their larval stage of life (as caterpillars), they are less mobile and so rely on a narrower range of food—usually a preferred host plant. Adult butterflies seek out specific plants to lay eggs: monarchs on milkweed, gulf fritillaries on passion vine, Western tiger swallowtails on trees in the Alnus genus (willow, sycamore, alder), etc.

Once you start looking for them, you’ll see a kaleidoscope of butterflies (and moths, too) at the L.A. Zoo. These are just a few of the local species—the ones you are most likely to see on grounds.

Butterflies

Western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)
The Western tiger swallowtail is one of the more conspicuous local butterflies. Bold yellow-and-black stripes and the large size of their wingspan (stretching up to 3.5 inches) make them quite eye catching. The darker anise swallowtail is a rarer sight.

Western Swallowtail Butterfly found on Zoo grounds (Photo by Charlie Morley)

Western Swallowtail Butterfly found on Zoo grounds (Photo by Charlie Morley)

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
Probably the most familiar butterfly species in North America, monarchs are fairly common on Zoo grounds. Adults feed on a variety of flowers, and intermittent patches of native milkweed provide them food sources for their caterpillars.

Monarch butterfly (Photo by George Stoneman)

Monarch butterfly (Photo by George Stoneman)

Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
When their wings are open, gulf fritillary butterflies (aka passion butterflies) are similar in appearance to monarchs, but the elegant silver-and-tan undersides of their wings are distinctive. This species originated in Mexico, but when humans brought passion vine (the primary food for gulf fritillary caterpillars) north, these butterflies moved north, too.

Gulf fritillary butterfly (Photo by Charlie Morley)

Gulf fritillary butterfly (Photo by Charlie Morley)

Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
The elegant mourning cloak butterfly is so named because its velvety black wings with bright yellow edges and purple-ish spots resemble the somber clothing worn during the Victorian era by families who were commemorating the death of a loved one.

Mourning cloak butterfly (Photo by Bob McMillan)

Mourning cloak butterfly (Photo by Bob McMillan)

Acmon blue (Plebejus acmon)
The Acmon blue is one of a group of small butterflies with subtle blue-lavender, sometimes copper-tinged upper wings. It is a more common cousin of the endangered El Segundo blue, found only in a small region near Los Angeles International Airport.

Acmon blue butterfly (Photo by Andrew Lyell)

The two sides of the Acmon blue butterfly’s wings (Photo by Andrew Lyell)

Gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
Dapper and fidgety, the gray hairstreak is similar in appearance to the blues, though slightly larger and with distinctive black antenna-like tails that project from their back wings. The under-wings are silver-gray with a smattering of broken black lines and orangey spots.

Gray hairstreak butterfly (Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Gray hairstreak butterfly (Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
The larvae of fiery skippers feed on lawn grasses, which makes them a common sight wherever there is turf. Skippers are unusual in that their wings do not fold flat and upright as with most butterflies. At rest, they resemble tiny orange F-18 jets.

Fiery skipper butterfly (Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Fiery skipper butterfly (Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Moths

According to the Smithsonian Institution, there are some 160,000 species of moths in the world, as compared with 17,500 butterflies. But since the majority of moths are nocturnal, and we are diurnal creatures, butterflies are much more familiar to us. Many moths are spectacularly beautiful and, though a number of species are considered pests, almost all are also important pollinators.

Black witch (Ascalapha odorata)
The black witch is not very common in the Los Angeles Basin, with its primary range being Central and South America where it is the focus of many legends and superstitions. Black witches can reach wingspans of seven inches, and although their coloring is subtle and seems drab (an adaptation that helps them blend into tree bark where they rest during the day), light reveals delicate patterns and beautiful lavender eyespots. Females are distinguished by a chalky white line that runs across both wings.

Black Witch moth (Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Black Witch moth taken near the L.A. Zoo(Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Sphinx (Sphingidae)
Sphinx moths get their name from the defensive posture the caterpillars display when threatened, giving them the appearance of the Egyptian mythical creature. There are more than 1,400 species worldwide in this family. Also known as hawk moths, the group includes the famous death’s-head hawk moth (native to Europe and Asia) as well as the locally common white-lined sphinx moth. Also known as hummingbird moths, these large nectar feeders are able to hover around flowers while sipping nectar through their very long tongues.

Sphinx moth (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

Sphinx moth (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

To learn more about butterflies and moths, visit Xerces Society.

References for this post can also be found in the member newsletter Zooscape (July 2007 and April 2013).