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5 Common Butterflies in Canada

Canada is a country best known for its expensive wilderness and animals such as the grizzly bear, the polar bear, beaver, porcupine, the moose and the shaggy bison just to mention a few. However, Canada is also home to a wide range of insect species including butterflies.

Butterflies fall under the classification of Lepidoptera. Their defining features include four(4) wings covered with flat scales which give them their color and even their patterns. The wings also play a huge role when it comes to the process of identifying butterflies. According to lepidopterists (butterfly watchers), butterflies are identified using features such as;

  • The shape of the wings
  • The color
  • The size of the butterfly
  • The patterns on the butterfly’s wings.

In some cases, however, even established butterfly watchers may find it hard to distinguish between different butterfly species. In such cases, location and even the time of the year may help determine the species of a butterfly.

Butterfly watching is an activity whose popularity is quickly rising. While some people watch them to experience their vibrant colors, others watch them marvel at the metamorphosis that these insects go through before becoming the majestic winged insects they are.

Indeed, the metamorphosis process that butterflies go through serves to constantly remind people that there is always hope and that positive change is possible. This butterfly watching guide is ideal for those who are interested in butterfly watching in Canada.

The guide includes some of the common butterfly species, their description and even where to find the species. The butterflies are categorized into their respective families:

1. Family Nymphalidae

This is the largest family of butterflies and includes approximately 5000 different species of butterflies worldwide. Butterflies under this family are also known as brush-footed butterflies. This is because their forelegs covered with long hairs making them resemble a brush.

The Monarch (Danaus Plexippus)

(Source: adamitshelanu)

The Monarch is categorized under the Danainae subfamily of the Nymphalidae family. They are probably one of the best-known species of butterflies in the world. They are also the best known migratory butterflies in the world and have gained a notable reputation of flying up to 3,200 km from Toronto to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Central Mexico where they overwinter.

With a wingspan of between 9 cm and 11 cm, adult Monarchs are definitely among the largest butterflies in Canada. The upper side of the wings is an intense orange with thick black veins. In addition to that, the wings also have a wide black border that is dotted with a double row of white spots.

The forewings of Monarchs also contain several pale orange spots as well as a few white ones. The underside of the wings is quite similar to the upper-side except the orange hue is much paler (yellow-brown). Male Monarchs have a black scent gland (sex patch) on each hind wing hence differentiating them from the females. The scent glands appear as two black dots on the hind-wings. However, when compared to other members of the Danainae subfamily, the scent glands on the Monarch are modestly developed.

Female monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. According to experts, a single female can lay between 300 and 400 eggs in the course of her lifetime.

Monarch butterflies start arriving in Canada from late May with a majority of them arriving in the month of June. A majority of them then leave in September although a few are still seen in October and sometimes even November. Probably the best times to observe Monarchs is in early fall when they start their migration southward.

Butterfly watchers can see hundreds and sometimes thousands of these majestic butterflies in places such as Point Pelee National Park in Southwestern Ontario as well as Presqu’ile Provincial Park which is located on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. In Toronto, observers have reported seeing thousands of Monarchs in Toronto Islands and the Leslie Street Spit.

2. Family Hesperiidae

Also known as skippers, this is a large family comprised of approximately 3,700 different species worldwide. Of these, approximately 72 are found in Canada. Perhaps the most distinct feature of skippers is their thick and heavily muscled thorax. Skippers have six legs all of which are fully functional. These butterflies tend to skip from one place to another with rapid and powerful wing movements hence the name “skippers”.

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus Calrus)

Epargyreus Calrus

This is the largest resident Canadian skipper. These butterflies have a wingspan of between 37 mm and 45 mm. This fast and powerful flier has pointed forewings and a dark brown color on the up-side as well as on the underside.

The forewing of the Silver-spotted Skipper also has a golden yellow band on both surfaces of the wing while the underside of the hindwing has an unmistakable silvery whitish patch at the center. It is almost similar to the Hoary Edge (another skipper butterfly) except the Hoary Edge has the silver white patch along the outer third of the hind wings underside rather than at the center.

Normally, the Silver-spotted skipper is seen in open areas and particularly those that border woods or thickets as well as along open trails and in flower gardens. Silver-spotted butterflies are known to feed on nectar flowers such as the Canada thistle, cow vetch, Indian hemp, Brazilian verbena and even the New England aster among others.

Individual male silver-spotted butterflies are known to perch on a tree branch or in some cases a blade of tall grass waiting for a female. The males protect their territories vigorously, and they often pursue perceived intruders (including other males and even random insects) before circling back to the same place they were perched.

In Canada the Silver-spotted Skipper is found in British Columbia, Quebec, Quebec City, Langton Lake, Manitoba and near Taber in Southern Alberta. It is also found in Ontario and is recognized as a resident butterfly in Toronto.

3. Family Papilionidae

This is a family that includes Parnassian and Swallowtail butterflies. It is the smallest family of butterflies but is also among the best-known families of butterflies due to the beauty and large size of butterflies under this family. It comprises approximately 570 species worldwide with approximately 18 of these found in Canada. Most of the butterflies in this family have tails on their hind wing hence the name “Swallowtail”.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio Glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This large and beautiful butterfly is a native to Eastern North America. It has a wingspan measuring between 75 mm to 100 mm. It is worth noting that females are larger than males.

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are yellow in color and have four black tiger-like stripes on each forewing. The outer edge of the forewings is colored black and is dotted with yellow spots along the outer border. The postmedian part of the upper hindwing is a black strip with spots of yellow along the margin.

On the other hand, the inner margin of male Eastern Tigers is dotted with both red and blue spots.

Females come in two forms; the first is the yellow form which has a blue postcentral area on the upper side of the hind wing. The second is the black female form which has stripes that are darker (sometimes appearing as a dark gray). However, the dark form of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is quite rare and is often seen at Point Pelee in Southern Ontario.


This butterfly is commonly seen in fields, woodlands, roadsides and even gardens. It has two broods; the first of these flies in May and the second generation flies until the end of August although some are occasionally seen in September. Eastern tiger swallowtails mostly feed on nectar from lilacs, common milkweed, and even butterfly bush. As caterpillars, the species is found on trees such as the white ash, the black cherry, and the tulip tree.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is common in Southern Ontario particularly in areas such as the Bruce Peninsula, Eastern Ontario particularly Rideau Lakes and Grenville County. This butterfly is also commonly seen within the Toronto region.

4. Family Pieridae

This family mainly consists of Whites and Sulphurs. There are approximately 1,200 species of this family, and about 40 of them are in Canada. Aside from having six fully-functional legs, butterflies in this family also have strongly forked claws on the feet. In addition to that, most of the butterflies in this family are predominantly white, yellow or orange in color.

Mustard White (Pieris Oleracea)

Mustard White (Pieris Oleracea)

These butterflies are characteristically chalky white on the upper side. They also have a dusting of black scales along the bases of the wings, along with the Costa (central vein along the edge of the wings) and along the apex of the forewing. The Mustard white comes is visible in 2 forms depending on the season.

The springform of the butterflies the underside of the hindwing and near the apex of the forewing is pale yellow. Moreover, the veins in these two areas have a dark green shade that appears as a shadow on the upper side of the wings.

The summer form of the Mustard White has less of the dark shading on the top side while the underside is white with little or no dark shading on the veins. The wingspan of the Mustard White is relatively small; measuring between 32 mm and 50 mm.

This butterfly is primarily found in woodlands and open areas that are near woodlands. The larval stages of the Mustard White are known to feed on plants within the mustard family (hence the name Mustard white).

Rockcress and toothwort are particularly popular food plants for the larval form of the Mustard White. The species has two broods; the first flies from late April to early June while the second brood flies from July to early August.

In Canada, the Mustard White is quite common. It is found in areas such as the western part of Newfoundland, the Rocky Mountain Foothills in Alberta, across the northern and central parts of British Columbia. They are also found as far up North as the coast of Nunavut at Coppermine and Arviat.

5. Family Lycaenidae

This is a large family of butterflies consisting of approximately 4,000 different species worldwide. In Canada, 63 of these species are found. Harvesters, Coppers, Hairstreaks, and Blues are all encompassed under this family.

Most of the butterflies in this family are small and characteristically bright colored with some having a metallic shine. Most of them also have hair-like tails on their hind wings. Male adults have small forelegs and do not have claws. This differentiates them from females whose forelegs are normal sized and also normal regarding structure.

Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche Lygdamus)

Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche Lygdamus)

These are small butterflies with a wingspan of between 18 mm and 28 mm. The adult makes an upper side that is a bright and shiny light blue color. They also have a gray border along both wings. Among female adults, the dark gray border is much wider, and sometimes the gray shade is seen on the entire wing. The underside of these butterflies is a gray and is dotted with a row of round black spots with white borders around the spots on both wings.

Females are known to lay eggs on emerging flower heads of the cow vetch plant. The timing is such that when the larvae emerge, they can feed on the newly opening flowers. Other food plants for the larval stage of the Silvery Blue Butterfly include the white sweet clover, the alfalfa, the wild pea and the beach pea among other plants. These butterflies breed only once. This single generation flies between early May and early July in the south and from mid-June to August in areas such as Newfoundland and the North.

Silvery Blue butterflies are found in open woodlands, flowery meadows, roadsides and sometimes even in small waste areas in urban centers. It is abundant in areas that are near the larval food plants since adults also feed on the nectar of these plants.

In Canada, the Silvery Blue is one of the most abundant butterflies and is found in every province and territory except in southwestern Ontario where it is relatively rare. In Toronto, good viewing locations for the Silvery Blue Butterfly include Leslie Street Spit, Rouge Park, Don Valley Brick Works and Eglinton Flats.

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