Does the COVID-19 situation have you cooped up at home? If so, you’re not alone during these unusual times. With the shift towards working from home, folks are spending more time in their own yards and gardens as well as nearby parks and nature trails. Spending time out in nature can have notable health benefits, but it also gives us a great opportunity to observe the creatures around us—including insects, such as butterflies.
In Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, summer may be “peak” butterfly season, but a number of species can be active early in the year. These creatures might brighten your day during these tough times, and this guide will help you identify five of the commonest spring butterfly species in the Upper Midwest:
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa):
This butterfly is often the first one seen in spring. It’s an easy species to identify given its large size (3-4 inch wingspan) and colors on the upper wing surface—dark wings bordered with a row of small blue spots and pale edges. Mourning cloaks overwinter as adult butterflies amongst leaf litter or in other sheltered spots, so as soon as it’s warm enough they can become active. This butterfly can catch people off guard if they fly while snow remains on the ground. In early spring when flowers haven’t bloomed yet, mourning cloak butterflies are fond of visiting the sap flows on trees caused by the activity of the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma):
Like the mourning cloak, eastern commas overwinter as adult butterflies, so they’re ready to go as temperatures creep upwards. Eastern commas have a wingspan of approximately 2 inches. When spread, the wings are mostly orange with black spots and borders. The edges of the wings also have a “wavy” or “scalloped” appearance. The most distinguishing feature can be seen on the undersides of the wings when folded upwards: a small pale curved mark in the shape of a comma—hence the name. The closely-related question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) can also become active fairly early in the season and looks similar, but has a “?” shape on the underside of the hindwings.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta):
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is perhaps the best known migratory insect in our part of the world, but red admiral butterflies also migrate northwards in spring. The migratory behavior means that the arrival date and numbers can vary greatly from year to year, but red admirals can frequently be encountered in spring in the Upper Midwest. These butterflies have a wingspan of approximately 2 inches and have black wings with prominent white “!” marks near the tips of their forewings and a distinctive reddish-orange band cutting across the surface of their forewings.
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae):
Right around the start of the Civil War, the cabbage white made its first appearance in North America. Today, this European butterfly can be found widely distributed across much of the planet. Cabbage whites are indeed a whitish color with sooty black patches at the tips of their forewings. The forewings also possess black spots—1 spot for males, 2 for females. Their pale appearance and decent size (approximately 1 ¾ inch wingspan) make them easy to identify this time of the year.
Cabbage whites overwinter as chrysalises in the Upper Midwest, so they aren’t active quite as early as the mourning cloaks or eastern comma. However, the warmth of the sun can still lead to early spring sightings. Gardeners and vegetable farmers are well aware of this species since the caterpillars (“imported cabbageworms”) feed on plants from the mustard family—including broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon ladon):
If you spot a cluster of small bluish butterflies around a puddle on a hiking trail in spring, there’s a good chance they’re spring azures. These butterflies are the smallest on this list, with a wingspan of only around 1 inch. The beautiful sky blue color of their wings can be seen in flight, but when they land, spring azures tend to keep their wings folded over their body, showing the grey undersides with an assortment of tiny black mark. There are many other species of small blue butterflies in our area throughout the year, but the spring azures are some of the earliest to fly and are wrapping things up for the year as June approaches.
The Upper Midwest is home to over 150 butterfly species—each unique in its appearance, biology, and distribution. If you’re looking for some additional resources to learn about our butterflies, some of my favorites include: Butterflies of the Northwoods by Larry Weber, A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America by Jeffrey Glassberg, and the Wisconsin Butterflies website (wisconsinbutterflies.org) by photographer Mike Reese. The Wisconsin Butterflies website not only has wonderful photos and a wealth of information about each species, but users can view and submit butterfly sightings from around Wisconsin.