Los Angeles Butterfly Survey - Identifying Butterflies | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

This Monarch butterfly is about to unfurl its mouthparts and take a sip of nectar. Migrating Monarchs can fly upto 100 miles a day, using nectar as their only fuel!
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Identifying Butterflies

Scientists refer to butterflies and moths as "leps." This is a shortened common name that stems from the word Lepidoptera (refering to the insect order these organisms belong to), which means "scaly-winged." The scales that cover butterfly and moth wings are a unique characteristic of this group, and they are easily brushed off if they are not handled correctly. However, handling is not required to identifiy most of our local species. Just take your binoculars or a good camera and a trusted field guide and you'll be able to meet all of our local leps!


Butterfly or Moth

Although butterflies and moths belong to the same group of insects, there are some common differences that are used to separate them by the general public. Keep in mind there are exceptions to all of the following statements.

Butterflies

  • Usually active during the day
  • Usually quite colorful
  • Usually have thinner bodies with less "hair"
  • Usually have clubbed antennae
  • Usually rest with wings closed above their bodies or extened out to the side

Moths

  • Usually active during the night
  • Usually rather dull in color
  • Usually have fatter bodies with more "hair"
  • Usually have variable antennae that are never clubbed
  • Usually rest with their wings folded tent-like over their body 

Field Guide

Los Angeles County has records for about 236 species of butterflies and moths. Check out our field guide for eight of the common species in L.A.

Key

*Introduced species

Fiery Skipper

Hylephila pyleus

I am one of the most common butterflies you'll find in the city. To be a little confusing, I am a butterfly that has "hooks" at the end of my antennae, not clubs. I lay my eggs on grasses, as that is what my caterpillars like to eat. When I am resting I often hold my orange and black patterned wings splayed out so you can easily see all four.

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Papilo rutulus

I am one of the biggest and showiest butterflies in L.A. I am a strong flyer, and can often be seen flying into and out of the branches of trees as I search for sycamore, willow and poplar to lay eggs on. I am called a tiger swallowtail because I have black and yellow stripes and two short tails on the ends of each of my hind wings.

Cabbage White *

Pieris rapae

Gardeners beware, I love your cabbage and kale as much as you do! I'm also the butterfly most commonly seen in L.A. I am not from North America; I'm from Europe. I was introduced to Canada in the 1860s and have spread all over this continent. In L.A. I can be found all year round, even on warm sunny days in the winter. Sadly people often call me a moth!

Monarch

Danaus plexippus

I am one of the most identifiable butterflies in North America and people are fascinated by the migration of my eastern cousins that take them to Mexico each winter. I don't make that migration because I'm from California. Instead, I fly to groves along our coastline to overwinter. If you want to attract me to your yard, plant milkweed, so I can lay my eggs on it.

Gulf Fritillary

Agraulis vanillae

I am easily mistaken for a Monarch butterfly, because I am also orange and black. However, when I rest with my wings closed, you'll see I have silver spots on the underside of my wings. I lay my eggs on passion vines, where my grayish-purple caterpillars with orange bars and spikes feed on the leaves.

Red Admiral

Vanessa atalanta

I am a mostly black butterfly, with red and white patterns on my wings. I am attracted to rotting fruit, so can be sometimes be found in yards with fruit trees. I like to perch, and will often return to the same perch day after day. I am one of the few butterflies that will even perch on people from time to time!

Painted Lady

Vanessa cardui

I am the most widespread butterfly in the world. I am very often seen flying in massive numbers throughout the L.A. area, on my emigration from Mexico. I am popular in classroom projects across the country. I am sometimes mistaken for a Monarch as I have orange, black, and white markings on my wings, but I'm a great deal smaller. 

White Lined Sphinx

Hyles lineata

The best place to find me is hovering over a flowering bush on a warm summer's evening. I am a large moth, with a hawk-like flight, so many people call me a hawk moth.  My thin, pointed wings have a uniqe white stripe pattern that makes me very easy to identify.


L.A. Checklist

If you are experienced at finding and identifing butterflies in moths in L.A. County, you might want to download our checklist. Take it out into the field with you and see how many you can find.