Butterflies add lively, dancing color to even the most vivid of ornamental gardens. Only a small fraction of the butterflies found worldwide -- about 700 of 20,000 species -- call North America home. All you need to get started identifying the butterflies in your garden is a field guide of local butterflies.
Butterfly Identification Tips
When becoming familiar with the yellow butterflies in your garden, learn to observe and look for specific traits to aid in identification. First, note the butterfly's size. Since yellow butterflies vary greatly in size, this helps you to eliminate possible species right away. Next, note any bold patterns or markings. Butterflies may have stripes or bullseye-shaped markings called eyespots. Observe the shape of the butterfly's wings. Some have angular shapes, while others are highly rounded. Note if the wings have elongations at their tips called tails.
When consulting a field guide to confirm a butterfly's identity, don't forget to keep in mind the geographical location as well as the habitat where you saw the butterfly. For example, if you find a yellow butterfly while hiking in the woods, it's likely not a common sulphur, which keeps to fields and open spaces.
The sulphurs belong to the Pieridae family along with white butterflies. There are about 60 Pieridae species in North America. Generally, sulphurs are medium-sized, although very small and large species do exist. Their color ranges from nearly white to deep orange-yellow, and males and females often vary dramatically in color. Sulphurs generally lack markings, although some species have black wing borders or a delicate pink fringe on their wings, and some species have small eyespots, generally rimmed in pink.
With their large wingspans and bold, contrasting colors, swallowtails turn heads in the garden. Several species have yellow wings marked with bold black stripes and borders. Swallowtails are named for the manner in which their hindwings taper into long tails. When identifying them, look also for the blue and red eyespots or blue patches that sometimes mark their wings. Yellow swallowtails frequently have yellow spots marking the margins of their wings. The number, shape and size of these spots can help you distinguish between similar-looking species.
Hairstreaks distinguish themselves from other butterflies by their tendency to perch with their wings closed. Thin tails project from their hindwings. Although usually brown or gray, a few species have yellow or yellow-green outer wings. To distinguish between species, look for small spots or faint stripes, as hairstreaks don't tend to display bold patterns. A few species have a light fuzz on the margins of their wings.
The skippers are a family of butterfly that even lepidopterists have trouble identifying because individual species very closely resemble each other. Generally brown, gray or orange in color, a few species have golden highlights. Skippers tend to be small in size and fold their wings over their backs, causing them to resemble moths. When identifying skippers, look for fuzzy or dark-colored margins on the wings. Some have white or brighter yellow patches; closely observe the shape of these patches to aid in identification.
- "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies"; Robert Michael Pyle; 1981
- "The Audubon Society Pocket Guides: Familiar Butterflies, North America"; Richard K. Walton, et al.; 1990
- Idaho Museum of Natural History: Family Pieridae, the Whites and Sulphurs
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