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Helpful Hints

My son Patrick at 1 years of age (Summer 1998), getting a start in studying Lepidoptera; Patrick (age 7) still enjoying nature!                  

For those of you who are just beginning to enjoy the world of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), this page is designed to help narrow your search when looking for the exact identification of butterflies and moths you may encounter. You are not going to specifically identify any species from this page alone, but this page will help you know where to begin looking for your target butterfly or moth.

I have often had students stop by my office with two questions. The first is usually "Are you the bug guy?" After I answer that question affirmatively, the second is "Well, I saw this butterfly the other day, and it looked kinda big and black, or maybe brown; what was it?"  My answer is usually a number of more specific questions about wing pattern, flight pattern, etc., most of which they answer with, "Well, I really don't remember." At this point, I'll usually tell them, "Well, it could have been either a Black Swallowtail, or a Pipevine Swallowtail, or a female Tiger Swallowtail, or a Spicebush Swallowtail, or a Red-Spotted Purple*, or a female Diana Fritillary*, or a Promethea Moth or . . ." well you get the picture. With over 3000 species of butterflies and moths likely to be recorded in Georgia when all is said and done, it is imperative that you look closely at the butterfly or moth if you really want to know what it is. If you can collect a specimen, or take a photograph, this will likely make identification much easier. If you find you don't remember enough about the butterfly or moth you saw, remember to look at the following characteristics in the future anytime you see a lep you are interested in:

1. How is the lepidopteran holding its wings (wings up and closed over body, wings open at an angle, wings held out to sides, wings held rooflike over the body)?

2. What shape are the wings (are they rounded or were the edges with small irregular toothlike projections, do they have projections [tails] off the hindwings, etc.)?

3. What size is the lepidopteran (is it small, medium-sized, big; inch/centimeter forewing length estimates are good)?

4. How large is the body in relation to the wings (would you call the body skinny or fat), and does it protrude beyond the end of the wings?

5. How hairy is the body?

6. What is the main (ground) color of the wings? Try to see as many wings surfaces as possible (fore- and hindwings; upperside and underside); for moths that sit with their wings rooflike, you=ll only see the upperside of the forewings in a live individual.

7. Are there any distinctive markings (on the wings, body, antennae), and where are they located?

8. What color(s) is/are the distinctive markings?

9. Is the lepidopteran active during the day, night, dusk/dawn, or some combination? Even the time of day may be distinctive (eg.,  male Promethea Moths typically fly at about 4:00 p.m.).

10. What is the habitat like where you found it?

11. Was it visiting flowers, rotting fruit, sap on a tree, wet soil?

12. If you can see them, what were the antennae like (entirely filamentous ["hairlike"], filamentous with a thickening [knob] toward the end, featherlike, etc.)?

13. How long are the antennae, or are they even visible? Many moths tuck their antennae in beside the body and appear to have no antennae.

14. How many functional legs does the individual appear to have (is it standing on four or six legs when on a flower; this characteristic is only important in the butterflies)?

15. How does the lep in question fly -- leisurely, quickly, darting from flower to flower? Does it flutter or hover in front of the flower it is visiting, or sit/walk on the flower heads?

More to pay attention to than you thought? Well, after you've gotten into this hobby a bit, it will become second nature to start looking for certain key characteristics.

Some of the above will be much easier to see on a collected specimen than a live, moving one. Many, many moths are different shades of gray and brown, often with quite subtle yet pretty patterns (as you will see if you peruse the pictures on this site). For these species, a specimen or a very good picture are virtually required in order to identify them the first time around.  However, most butterflies and skippers, and even a large number of the moths (particularly the larger/showier ones) can be identified in the field with some practice. It is even possible to identify some of them as they fly by at a high rate of speed!

Quick Tips:

Presented here are some clues to find your way quickly to a specific group of butterflies or moths which likely includes the one you are looking for. Please be aware that very few characteristics of butterflies and moths are found in one group and only one group 100% of the time. However, the following will get you headed in the right direction for most leps you encounter.

  • A species that flies during the day, with some swelling (knob) somewhere along the antennae, is either a butterfly or skipper. There are many species of moths that do fly during the day, so don't immediately assume that you are looking at a butterfly or a skipper. The antennal characteristic works for virtually 100% of the leps in Georgia, and you should be able to see the antennae on any live butterfly or skipper (if you can get reasonably close).

  • A species with either completely filamentous (hairlike) antennae or feathery antennae, is a moth. If you cannot seem to see the antennae, then you are looking at a moth. As mentioned above, many moths species tuck their antennae along the body. Nighttime flight, hairier body, wings held out flat or rooflike over the body are characteristics that are also typical of moths.

  • Within Butterflies and Skippers:

  • A species with the "knob" on the end of the antennae, and also sittting with its wings up and closed, is undoubtedly a butterfly (though not quite all butterflies sit with their wings up). There are also only a very few moths (a few geometrids) that sit with their wings closed, so this characteristic is also good for distinguishing butterflies from moths.

  • A species with the knob down from the tip of the antenna a little (often with a hook on the end), is a skipper. There are some species of skippers that sit with wings up, open at a partial angle, or flat out from the body. Virtually all species are small (2 inches or less in wingspan) brownish-black, brown, or orangish, often with spots of orange, yellow or white on the wings, and with relatively robust bodies.

  • Within the Butterflies:

    Be aware that any species with a tail can lose them with normal wear and tear during their short lifetime -- large black, brown, yellow and black or white and black butterflies without tails are likely to be swallowtails, but two nymphalids (Red-Spotted Purple [Limenitis arthemis astyanax] and female Diana Fritillary [Speyeria diana]) are also large and black and never have tails.

  • If the species is generally orange, then you are looking at a member of the Nymphalidae (with a couple of exceptions -- the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) and American Copper (Lycaena phlaes) (lycaenids) and Metalmarks (Riodinidae) are small, orange species that are quite local, so they are not as likely to be encountered

  • If the species is very small (typically less than 2 inches) with colors generally from light gray to almost black, brown, or green on the underside, and gray, brown or blue on the upperside, then the species is in the Lycaenidae (Hairstreaks and Blues; note Harvester and American Copper mentioned above will have some orange)

  • If the species is small to medium-sized, generally white, yellow, chartreuse, or yellow-orange, then the species is a White or a Sulphur (Pieridae)

  • Any butterfly not fitting one of the above categories will be in the Nymphalidae. You will also note that all nymphalids appear to be walking around on four legs only; they have all six, but the front two are much reduced and brushlike, which is why the common name for this family is the Brush-Footed Butterflies.

  • Within the MothsRemember: these characteristics work generally for most species; not all species of a particular family will necessarily have the indicated traits.

        There are many species that are very small (some species in the family Nepticulidae have a wingspan less than one-eighth of an inch), and most of these hold their wings very tightly folded over the body, giving them a very thin appearance. These all belong to one of the microlepidopteran families and not emphasized currently on this website.  If you are on this "Hints" page, you are probably not looking for information on these moths!

    A couple of very distinctive traits first:

    Some more general descriptions of moth families:

    Many of the moths you are going to encounter, in fact the majority of moths you are likely to encounter at lights, do not belong to any of the families mentioned above.  These will include some small to quite large moths, with various colors but often browns, grays and blacks on the forewings with lighter colored markings.  Most of these moths belong to the largest family of moths, the Noctuidae, and many of the species in the family are quite common.  Various species of noctuids are of quite different from one another -- in color, pattern, size, resting posture, etc., but all typically have very thin antennae.  Other families with moths that are similar in appearance to noctuids include the Notodontidae and the Thyatiridae, as well as some Arctiidae and even occasional Pyralidae (eg., the genus Omphalocera).