Top Butterflies in Maryland: Identification & Viewing Guide

Top Butterflies in Maryland: Identification & Viewing Guide

Curious about the butterflies in Maryland? This guide will help you identify and appreciate the diverse butterfly species that call Maryland home. Learn where to find them and discover their unique characteristics.

Using this guide, can you figure out the types of butterflies in this video?

Eastern Shore life is simply the best. Over the past few years, we have put in endless hours on our Kent Island farm to allow our bees to produce three varietals of our Eastern Shore Honey. To share our paradise with you, we're publishing our Eastern Shore Life series to spotlight the happenings on the farm. We see all of these butterflies on our farm!

Discover the Diverse Butterfly Species in Maryland

Maryland is home to a dazzling array of butterfly species, each contributing to the rich tapestry of its natural beauty. You can spot everything from the majestic Swallowtails to the delicate Gossamer Wings fluttering around the state. These butterflies thrive in various habitats, including broadleaf woodlands, sunny meadows, and even urban gardens. The diversity doesn’t stop there; Maryland also hosts Whites and Sulphurs, Satyrs & Wood Nymphs, Milkweed Butterflies, and various Skippers.

The sheer variety of Maryland butterflies is astounding, with hundreds of species making their home here. Among these, a few species particularly stand out, even though they belong to the same species group. Take the Zebra Swallowtail, for instance, which prefers habitats abundant with pawpaw trees. Or the Clouded Sulphur, known for its erratic flight style and distinct white and yellow morphs. Each butterfly species plays a vital role in pollination and serves as a barometer of environmental health, reflecting the quality of our ecosystem.

Blue Butterfly tea loose-leaf and brewed

Our Blue Butterfly Pea Flower Tea is like a real butterfly - light and vibrant in color!

Monarch Butterflies: Iconic Pollinators

Among the most celebrated of Maryland butterflies is the Monarch. Known for their epic two-way migration, these butterflies can travel up to 100 miles a day during their journey. The Monarch’s bright orange wings with black and white spots are a familiar sight in gardens and fields alike. However, their reliance on milkweed plants makes them vulnerable to habitat loss. Mid-September is typically when you can observe their migration in Maryland.

Late September on Chesterhaven Beach Farm we experienced a beautiful moment when the monarchs stopped by on the way somewhere warm and they decided to stick around for a while.

Milkweed is the exclusive food source for Monarch caterpillars and a key factor in their survival. This relationship underlines the need to:

  • Conserve and cultivate milkweed for the sustenance of Monarch populations

  • Recognize the importance of Monarch butterflies as key pollinators

  • Understand that the presence of Monarchs is a testament to a healthy ecosystem.

Painted Lady: The Cosmopolitan Butterfly

The Painted Lady, often dubbed the “cosmopolitan butterfly,” is a global traveler found in a variety of habitats. With their distinctive orange and light brown patterned wings adorned with white spots near the tips, they are hard to miss. The underside of their wings reveals a mottled brown pattern with four small cream colored spots near the margins, adding to their intricate beauty. In Maryland, you’ll find them fluttering around prairies, old fields, and gardens.

Nectar from tall flowers such as blazing star, cosmos, and purple coneflower is a favored food source for Painted Ladies, who are not particular about their diet. Their adaptability to different environments, from quiet roadsides to bustling gardens, makes them one of the most common butterflies you’ll encounter.

Red Admiral: A Common Sight in Urban and Suburban Environments

The Red Admiral is a butterfly that loves human company and is often seen in urban and suburban environments. With striking yellow orange bars on their dark wings and white dots near the tips, they are quite the sight. Red Admirals have a particular fondness for fermenting fruits, which can sometimes include rotting fruit, a source of vital nutrients for them. You might even find one perched on you, as they are known to be very people-friendly.

Red Admirals:

  • Thrive in moist environments such as marshes, woods, and well-watered gardens

  • Migrate southward during the winter to escape the cold, only to return when the weather warms up

  • Have a calm demeanor and are easy to approach, making them a favorite among butterfly watchers.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail: Striking Yellow and Black Beauty

One of the most eye-catching Maryland butterflies is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. With their large yellow wings adorned with black stripes, they are a striking contrast to the greenery they often inhabit. Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails can be either the typical yellow with black stripes or an almost entirely black form, mimicking the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail. This mimicry helps protect them from predators. In addition to these captivating creatures, the eastern tailed blue is another species that contributes to the diverse world of Maryland butterflies, often seen with a subtle red stripe on their wings. Interestingly, some individuals may also exhibit white stripes, adding to the variety of patterns found in this fascinating group of insects.

These butterflies prefer warmer climates and are frequently found in lower elevations. They tend to be solitary, flitting about from flower to flower, sipping on nectar. Their affinity for tall-stalked flowers such as phlox and lilac adds a delightful touch to any garden.

Viceroy vs. Monarch: Spotting the Differences

At first glance, the Viceroy and Monarch butterflies appear almost identical, but a closer look reveals key differences. The Viceroy has a distinct black line crossing the postmedian hindwing, which the Monarch lacks. Additionally, Viceroys are smaller, with a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.375 inches compared to the Monarch’s 3.375 to 4.875 inches. This disparity in size can quickly help distinguish between them.

Another distinguishing feature is their flight pattern. Monarchs have a graceful, float-like ‘flap, flap, glide’ flight, while Viceroys exhibit a faster and more erratic movement. Knowing these differences can enhance your butterfly watching experience and help you appreciate the subtle nuances of these beautiful insects.

Can you guess which kind this butterfly is?

Black Swallowtail: Garden Visitor

The Black Swallowtail is a frequent visitor to gardens, often mistaken for its poisonous cousin, the Pipevine Swallowtail. Here are some key features of the Black Swallowtail:

  • Their wings feature two rows of yellow spots and a blue patch in the powdery blue area

  • Males display more yellow and less blue compared to females

  • This form of mimicry serves as an evolutionary defense mechanism, safeguarding them from predators.

Black Swallowtail caterpillars have a preference for cultivated herbs such as parsley and mint when it comes to host plants. These herbs are favored for their nourishing properties. This makes them a delightful addition to any herb garden, where they can often be seen fluttering around, sipping nectar from flowers such as milkweed and zinnias.

Mourning Cloak: Elusive Winter Butterfly

The Mourning Cloak, also known as the yellow morph, is one of the few butterflies you might spot during winter, thanks to their unique hibernation habits. They have dark brown maroon wings with ragged pale-yellow edges and iridescent blue spots, making them quite distinctive. These butterflies hibernate in tree cavities or under loose bark, emerging on warm winter days or early spring.

In Maryland, Mourning Cloaks are often found near deciduous forests, suburban yards, and parks. Their early emergence makes them one of the first butterflies seen in spring, signaling the arrival of warmer days.

Attracting Butterflies to Your Backyard

Butterflies don't produce honey, but they are an important cornerstone in the ecosystem. These insects pollinate a large number of flowers while also serving as a food source for birds and bats.

Creating a butterfly-friendly garden is easier than you might think. Cultivating native wildflowers can draw a rich variety of butterfly species to your backyard. Some flowers that you can consider planting are:

  • Black-Eyed Susan

  • Butterfly Weed

  • Lavender

  • Aster flowers such as daisies and sunflowers

These flowers not only add beauty to your garden but also provide essential flower nectar sources for butterflies.

Additionally, incorporating plants like milkweed can attract specific butterflies like the Monarch, which rely on them for their life cycle. Make sure to provide sunny areas and avoid using pesticides, as these can harm both butterflies and caterpillars. With a little effort, you can transform your garden into a haven for these enchanting insects.

Closeup of milkweed plants

Butterfly Behavior and Life Cycle

Butterflies undergo a fascinating metamorphosis that includes four stages:

  1. Egg

  2. Larva (caterpillar)

  3. Pupa

  4. Adult

Female butterflies lay hundreds of eggs on specific host plants, ensuring that their caterpillars have immediate access to food upon hatching. Upon hatching, these caterpillars consume their eggshells, a source of crucial nutrients.

As caterpillars grow, they molt several times, shedding their exoskeletons. During the pupa stage, their bodies transform into a ‘tissue cell soup’ before emerging as adult butterflies. Once their wings dry, they are ready to take flight, starting the cycle anew.

The average adult butterfly lives for about two weeks, during which they focus on feeding and reproduction.

Field of white flowers

Beautiful Maryland Butterflies

From the iconic Monarch to the elusive Mourning Cloak, Maryland’s butterflies are a testament to the state’s rich biodiversity. These beautiful insects are not only a joy to observe but also play crucial roles as pollinators and indicators of environmental health. By learning to identify and understand their behaviors, we can better appreciate and protect these vital creatures.

Whether you’re a seasoned butterfly watcher or a curious beginner, there’s always something new to discover in the world of butterflies. So, get out there, explore, and perhaps transform your own garden into a butterfly paradise. Your efforts will contribute to conserving these enchanting insects for future generations to enjoy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of butterflies are commonly seen in Maryland?

In Maryland, you can commonly spot Monarchs, Swallowtails, Painted Ladies, and Red Admirals while enjoying the outdoors. Happy butterfly watching!

Why is the Monarch butterfly's habitat loss a concern?

Monarch butterflies are important pollinators, and their reliance on milkweed makes them vulnerable to habitat loss, which ultimately impacts their populations. Loss of habitat can significantly affect their numbers.

How can I attract butterflies to my backyard?

Planting native wildflowers like milkweed, salvia, sunflowers, asters, and lavender, while avoiding pesticides, can help attract butterflies to your backyard. Happy butterfly watching!

What is the difference between Viceroy and Monarch butterflies?

The main differences between Viceroy and Monarch butterflies are the black line across the hindwings of Viceroy butterflies, their smaller size, and faster, more erratic flight pattern. This sets them apart from Monarchs.

What is the life cycle of a butterfly?

So, the life cycle of a butterfly includes four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and adult, which is known as complete metamorphosis. This transformation allows a butterfly to undergo significant changes from one stage to the next.


Kara holding a hive frame in doorway of cabin

About the Author

Kara waxes about the bees, creates and tests recipes with her friend Joyce, and does her best to share what she’s learning about the bees, honey, ingredients we use and more. Read more about Kara