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Butterflies and Moths of Houston


Tiger Swallowtail
Tiger Swallowtail on thistle

Butterfly-watching is steadily gaining in popularity as a fascinating and rewarding hobby. It is ideal for Houston's hot summer months when birds become relatively scarce. About the only bad time in our area for butterflying is in January and even then you will find a few species. As is the case with birds, butterflies can be very choosy about their habitat. Some species prefer woodlands while others will only be found in open meadows. Caterpillars are particularly finicky about their food source, often insisting upon only type of host plant. Adults are generally more cosmopolitan except during egg-laying season.

Please Note: We DO NOT recommend the capture or collection of butterflies and moths. They should be left alone to be enjoyed in the wild.

Common Houston Butterflies

The following table lists some of the butterflies you are most likely to encounter. The larval food column is a partial listing of plants used by caterpillars of a certain species.

Large Butterflies (over 2.5" wingspan)
Name Description Larval Food Source
Monarch Orange with black veins milkweed
Queen Similar to Monarch with white spots on upper wings milkweed
Gulf Fritillary Orange, wings narrower than monarch, large silver spots on hindwings below passion-flower vine
Black Swallowtai Black, wings have yellow or white spots parsley family
Giant Swallowtail Black, top surface of wings are outlined with bold yellow stripe citrus trees, hop-tree
Pipe-vine Swallowtail Black, wings have tiny white spots, metallic blue cast on top pipe-vine
Tiger Swallowtail Yellow with black stripes or all black wild cherry, plum
Question Mark Russet brown with darker areas, wings have distinctive anglewing shape and silvery question mark on lower wing below elm and hackberry
Cloudless Sulphur Giant yellow butterfly cassia, senna
Medium Butterflies (2" to 2.5" wingspan)
Name Description Larval Food Source
Red Admiral Black nettle
American Painted Lady Orange-brown with eyespots aster family
Painted Lady Pinkish-orange with eyespots thistles
Buckeye Brown, large multicolor eyespots on top ruellia
Hackberry Mottled gray-brown parsley family
Tawny Emperor Similar to Hackberry but tawny-orange citrus trees, hop-tree
Small Butterflies
Name Description Larval Food Source
Satyrs Dark gray-brown with eyespots, found in woodlands grasses
Hairstreaks Pearl gray with tiny hair-like tails cedar, oak
Texan Crescen Coffee brown with rows of white dots shrimp plant
Funereal Duskywin Black, hindwing bordered in white rattlebush, vetch
Silver-spotted Skipper Russet brown, large white spot on lower surface false indigo
Long-tailed Skipper Grayish green with long tails beans
Northern Cloudywing Dark brown, small white triangular spots legumes
Fiery Skipper Orange wings folded like paper airplane. Several similar species. grasses
Ocola Skipper Dark gray with translucent dots, particularly common in fall grasses

This is just a sample of some of the more common butterflies which may be seen in Houston. To fully appreciate the wealth of species you need to acquire a field guide. Butterflies of Houston by John and Gloria Tveten is the best guide for our area. Much of the information in this table comes from their book.

Common Houston Moths

Moths differ from butterflies in several ways. Most moths have feathery antennae. At rest, their wings are often folded flat across their backs. Their bodies tend to be plumper and sometimes look furry. Moths fly at night and during twilight hours. In general they are very short-lived, with some only lasting a few days.

Writing a field guide on moth identification is a daunting proposition as there are thousands of species in North America. Still families can often be readily identified and some moths are as beautiful as spectacular butterflies. Here are some of the more easily recognizable species which can be found in our area.

Large (Giant Silk) Moths (at least 2.5" wingspan)
Name Description Larval Food Source
Luna Pale green with long tails sweet gum
Polyphemus Golden-yellow with large eyespots oaks
Cecropia Brown with red patches and white bands maples, plums
Io Yellow with large eyespots privet
Small and Medium Moths
Name Description Larval Food Source
Leopard White with black spots, the caterpillar is the well-known woolly bear plaintain
Hummingbird Resembles a small hummingbird and feeds on flowers during the day honeysuckle
Sphinx Large family with cryptic coloration, caterpillars include green hornworms wide variety including pentas and tomatoes

Gardening for Butterflies and Moths

Now that you're hooked on butterflying, why not invite them to your yard! Remember that the butterfly garden needs to supply nectar sources for adult butterflies and host plants for their larvae. If you're just getting started, you may want to concentrate on just one species, for example by planting milkweed for monarch caterpillars. Obviously, if you wish to attract butterflies to your yard you should refrain from using insecticides. Also, please avoid bug-zappers. These devices are not that effective in controlling mosquitoes but do succeed in killing many harmless and beautiful moths. Butterflies tend to be more attracted to wildflowers than to their cultivated cousins. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, however, and the most outstanding example of this is buddleia, a shrub originally from Asia which produces flowers resembling lilacs all summer. It has been nicknamed" the butterfly bush" because of butterflies' fondness for it.

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