Who doesn’t love butterflies that live in Michigan? These beneficial pollinators are necessary for the survival of ecosystems around the United States, including the northern state of Michigan. In fact, the Great Lake State is quite well-known for having a significant butterfly population. Michigan’s butterfly population is rich in diversity, making it a great place to travel to if you are an avid butterfly watcher.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common butterflies that live in Michigan and break down how to identify them in the wild.
Scientific Name: Junonia coenia
This is one of the most beautiful species of butterflies that live in Michigan. The eyespots on the brown, upper, and lower wings of the common buckeye butterfly are thought to help warn off potential predators. On their forewings, they feature orange stripes as well. They have two to two-and-a-half-inch wingspans.
The common buckeye butterfly is primarily found in the southern part of Michigan, with minor concentrations in the peninsula and the Traverse City area. They often visit nectar-producing plants including butterfly bushes, hydrangeas, and zinnias. Their caterpillars tend to stick to host plants including gerardia, snapdragons, and foxglove.
Scientific Name: Vanessa atalanta
One of the most common butterflies in Michigan is the red admiral. Red admirals have a two to two-and-a-half-inch wingspan. They have white markings and a reddish circular band on top of their dark brown hue, and the underside of the rear wings has a bark-like appearance. This species’ caterpillars have white dots and range in color from rosey gray to charcoal. Along their backsides, they have special spines that look similar to hairs, as do many caterpillars.
Red admirals are migratory butterflies. In the cold Michigan winter, they migrate south toward warmer regions before returning north in the late spring when there is more food available. One will be able to seek out this lovely butterfly in wet environments close to the edges of woods. The distinctive favorite meal of red admiral butterflies is fermented fruit, which is quite different from the typical flower nectar that most butterfly species enjoy. If you want to draw this species in, consider setting out sliced fruit that is overripe or starting to rot in a sunny area outdoors.
You’re in luck if you’re looking for a butterfly in Michigan that is easy to find and observe. Red admirals regularly land on people and are quite peaceful and approachable.
Scientific Name: Polygonia interrogationis
The question mark butterflies get their namesake from the white question mark pattern in the middle of their light brown hindwings. Their wingspans range from two-and-a-half to three inches, and their uppersides are usually more orangey with black markings.
These butterflies that live in Michigan can be found in forested parts in the central counties of the upper peninsula, southern Michigan, and in some locations around Traverse City. Adults will eat flowers including aster, milkweed, and sweet pepperbush but prefer rotten fruit, dung, and tree sap. Its caterpillars feed on host plants including nettle, hackberry, Japanese hop, and red and American elm.
Scientific Name: Vanessa cardui
When it comes to finding these butterflies that live in Michigan, keep an eye out for painted lady butterflies in open areas that are quiet and undisturbed, such as sides of roads, wildflower meadows, and low-traffic gardens. This species moves south during the winter to Mexico and then comes back to Michigan in the spring. The number of painted lady butterflies you see might vary significantly from season to season. They will often disappear for years at a time in certain regions before reappearing in greater numbers.
The wingspan of a painted lady butterfly is around two inches. This species has a rosey-orange coloration with white specks inside its black markings and dark brown to black markings close to the wingtips. The hues of painted lady caterpillars range from green to yellow to charcoal. This species is unique among known butterfly species in that it can reproduce throughout the year, rather than during a particular season. It spends the entirety of its life in locations that are ideal for the emergence of its eggs due to its strategy of continual movement.
Scientific Name: Celastrina neglecta
The summer azure butterfly is a powdery blue butterfly with white spots, tiny black dots, and zigzag patterns on its leaves. They have tiny wings that measure one to one-and-a-quarter inches. These butterflies can be found in the southern counties of Michigan, the northernmost counties of the Traverse City region, and the upper peninsula’s Mackinac County.
White clovers and chickweed blooms are among the nectar plants that these butterflies favor most. Their caterpillars consume host plants including racemose dogwood and New Jersey tea.
Scientific Name: Danaus plexippus
Of course, we had to include one of the most well-known butterfly species in North America on this list. The most recognizable butterfly in Michigan is without a doubt the monarch! Three to four inches is how wide the wingspan of a monarch butterfly extends. Their distinctive appearance feature rich orange hues with black veins in a stained glass design. The wings’ outer edges are lined with white dots. Caterpillars of this species are chubby and covered with black, white, and yellow stripes.
The color pattern and migration journey of the monarch butterfly are what it is known for. You might even observe flocks of hundreds of monarchs heading south during migration, which typically occurs in mid-September. As milkweed is the sole food source their caterpillars can consume, look for monarchs anywhere there is milkweed.
You’ve likely heard about the declining monarch population around the continent. You might not be aware, though, that this points to a general fall in the number of many other pollinating species, including bees and bats. These species, along with monarch butterflies, will benefit from the planting of local milkweed species. Try growing milkweed if you live in Michigan or any other state that monarchs visit to increase their numbers! These plants do well in virtually any garden.
Scientific Name: Limenitis arthemis astyanax
One of Michigan’s most exquisite butterflies, red-spotted purples are also among the easiest to recognize while butterfly-watching. They can be distinguished by their irridescent dark-indigo wings and bright reddish-orange markings. Surprisingly, this coloring serves as their primary method of defense against predators. This species has evolved its appearance to resemble the deadly pipevine swallowtail butterfly.
A red-spotted purple butterfly’s wingspan is between three and four inches. This species boasts iridescent blackish-blue coloring with rows of dots around the wing’s outer border. While the markings are typically an orange or red hue, some subtypes have pale blue or whitish spots instead. The wings’ undersides feature a smoky black color. Along with having chunky body portions and branch-like horns, their caterpillars are mottled brown, cream, and yellow in color.
Red-spotted purple butterflies consume carrion, sap, and dead fruit instead of nectar from flowers, though they are opportunists that are not picky. Try placing chopped citrus or apple in a suet cage outside in your garden to draw them in. The best chance of seeing them in Michigan is from April to October when they are most active.
Scientific Name: Limenitis archippus
The viceroy butterfly’s resemblance to the monarch butterfly is likely the first thing you’ll notice about it. Search for the black line on the underside of the wing to tell them apart in the easiest manner possible. Viceroys have this line, while monarchs do not. These two butterflies may look identical, but their caterpillars are noticeably different. Viceroy caterpillars lack the monarch caterpillar‘s vivid stripes.
A viceroy butterfly’s wingspan ranges from two-and-a-half to three inches. They have a dark orange tint with black margins and veins, as well as white specks on the border. This species’ caterpillar is a blend of green, brown, and cream hues. The caterpillar’s two horns, which resemble knobby antennas, are located on its head. In contrast to many other butterfly species, viceroys do not migrate. The caterpillars instead coil themselves up and spend the winter hanging out on leaves, and only emerge during the next mating season.
Scientific Name: Limenitis arthemis arthemis
The fascinating thing about white admirals is that, while having a completely different appearance from red-spotted purple butterflies, they belong to the same species. In Michigan, red-spotted purple butterflies altered their color to resemble another species. The white admiral butterfly still exists with its natural colors as the imitation species isn’t as common. Except for their appearance, these two subspecies are remarkably similar. For instance, willow, aspen, and birch trees serve as hosts for their caterpillars.
The wingspan of a white admiral butterfly is three to four inches, making it as large as a monarch butterfly. The top wings of this species are black with a brilliant white stripe in the middle. Their caterpillars have lumpy, angular body parts, twig-like horns, and mottled brown, cream, and yellow coloring.
Try placing a chopped piece of fruit in a suet cage in your yard to draw attention from white admirals and similar species. White admiral butterflies consume sap and decaying fruit in instead of flower nectar. During their mating season, which lasts from April to October, they are most active in Michigan.
Scientific Name: Asterocampa celtis
In southern Michigan, hackberry emperor butterflies are extremely common. The wingspan of a hackberry emperor butterfly is about two to two-and-a-half inches. This species has a complex pattern that is rich brown and almost gold. It has orange-ringed eyespots and many spots that are dark brown and white. Its caterpillars have two yellow stripes on its back and are light green in color. The caterpillar has two little tails on the back and two short spines on the top of its head.
These native butterflies of Michigan can be found in suburban yards, parks, and damp woodland regions. As they don’t usually eat flower nectar, you won’t see hackberry emperors in butterfly gardens with lots of flowers. Despite their alternative choice of diet, they are curious and brave butterflies that often land on humans. You definitely won’t have much trouble finding this species anywhere in Michigan.
Scientific Name: Nymphalis Antiopa
We’re going to include this butterfly on this list of butterflies that live in Michigan even though you might have trouble finding it in Michigan. Even for a dedicated butterfly watcher, it might be challenging to locate this species because of its penchant for chilly temperatures and its solitary lifestyle. Also, when its wings are folded, it blends in so well that you might not see one that is directly in front of you.
The wingspan of the mourning cloak butterfly is three to four inches. They have a dark tone with an iridescent shimmer. The outer edge of its wings is marked by a yellow border and a line of purple dots. Caterpillars of this species are dark in color with white flecks and a row of red markings on their backs.
Around deciduous woodlands is where you’ll most frequently see mourning cloak butterflies. Nonetheless, a variety of constructed locations, including suburban yards, parks, and golf courses, make up their habitat in Michigan. They are among the butterflies with the longest lifespans, with some surviving up to nearly a year. In the spring, mourning cloak butterflies are usually the first to emerge from dormancy. Some individuals even continue to be active throughout the winter months on mild days when snow is still on the ground.
Scientific Name: Polygonia comma
The wingspan of an eastern comma butterfly is two to two-and-a-half inches. On the top wings, they have black mottling with orange spots, and on the lower wings, mostly black with orange dots. Their wings have a white, striking border. The caterpillars of this species are black or greenish in color with a white side stripe and white spines.
In parks, suburban yards, and deciduous woodlands, eastern comma butterflies can be seen. The favored hosts for their caterpillars are nettle and elm trees. Adults prefer to eat decaying food, roadkill, and animal feces instead of being drawn to flowers. So, if you reside in Michigan, this is probably not a species you’d want to draw to your butterfly garden. That being said, they are quite common, so your chances of seeing one are good.
It’s interesting to note that eastern commas do not hibernate as caterpillars, but rather as adults. They take refuge in log piles, tree hollows, and even some man-made structures throughout the winter. Early spring in Michigan is their mating season, and early summer is when the new generation of butterflies emerges.
How cool are these stunning butterflies that live in Michigan? Next time you plan a butterfly-watching excursion to the state, keep this list in mind so that you can identify each butterfly you see.
I am broadly interested in how human activities influence the ability of wildlife to persist in the modified environments that we create.
Specifically, my research investigates how the configuration and composition of landscapes influence the movement and population dynamics of forest birds. Both natural and human-derived fragmenting of habitat can influence where birds settle, how they access the resources they need to survive and reproduce, and these factors in turn affect population demographics. Most recently, I have been studying the ability of individuals to move through and utilize forested areas which have been modified through timber harvest as they seek out resources for the breeding and postfledging phases. As well I am working in collaboration with Parks Canada scientists to examine in the influence of high density moose populations on forest bird communities in Gros Morne National Park. Many of my projects are conducted in collaboration or consultation with representatives of industry and government agencies, seeking to improve the management and sustainability of natural resource extraction.
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