Arizona Butterflies

They gracefully float on the breeze, capturing the admiration of young and old alike. Perhaps it’s their delicate nature or unique colors and intricate patterns we admire. Or it could be the symbiotic relationship they have with the loveliest of flora, serving as important pollinators in our ecosystem. Maybe it's the metamorphosis of their life cycle, representing transformation and new beginnings. Whatever the case may be, there's no denying there is something special about butterflies that captivates us all.

In a state that is famous for being hot and arid, you may wonder… can such delicate creatures as butterflies make a home in the Grand Canyon State? We’re happy to tell you that they do! 

Read on for information and fun facts about butterflies in Arizona, how you can identify types of butterflies, where to find butterflies, tips for observing them, and what you can do to help these elegant insects!

Arizona Butterfly Identification

There are an astounding number of butterfly species in the world, and here in Arizona, there are 250 that live and migrate through the state. With so many, how could we possibly talk about identifying butterflies? The scientific community has cleverly organized these species into groups called families, and there are seven families of butterflies in Arizona.

Lycaenidae (Gossamer-wing Butterflies; Blues and Hairstreaks)

Lycaenidae family of butterflies

If accessories were a thing in the butterfly world, Lycaenidae would be donning them all. These small-sized butterflies (usually under 1” in wingspan) can be identified by their colorfully iridescent and intricate wing markings. They also sport wispy wing filaments and black-and-white banded antennae. The closer you look at these dainty butterflies, the more decorative details you will find!

Riodinidae (Metalmarks)

Riodinidae family of butterflies

Metalmarks are sometimes considered a subfamily of Lycaenidae (Blues and Hairstreaks). They are a small to medium-sized butterfly known for their long antennae and their namesake: gold or silvery metallic-looking marks on their wings. They commonly perch on the underside of leaves with their wings spread open and flat.

Nymphalidae (Brushfoots)

Nymphalidae family of butterflies

This is the largest family of butterflies, and it includes many well-known species that immediately come to mind when talking about butterflies. Monarchs, as well as their lookalikes like Queens and Viceroys, Crescents, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, and Common Buckeyes all belong to this family. 

Brushfoots are typically brown and orange medium-sized butterflies. One of the best identifiers for butterflies in this family are the legs for which they’re named. Brushfoots have four walking legs and two small forelegs that are hairy (resembling brushes) which they hold against their thorax.

Libytheidae (Snouts)

Libytheidae family of butterflies

This family is sometimes considered a subfamily of Nymphalidae (Brushfoots), and is a very small group of 12 butterflies--only one of which can be found on the continent: the North American Snout. They have what appears to be an unusually-long nose, but this elongated mouthpart is actually a sense organ called palpi. Every butterfly has palpi, but their physical appearance varies by family, and you can't miss the Snout's due to their enlarged size. This butterfly’s tapered head and body give it a humpback appearance. Snouts are great at camouflage–resting with their wings closed to mimic a fallen leaf.

Papilionidae (Swallowtails)

Papilionidae family of butterflies

Meet the family that contains Arizona’s state butterfly: the two-tailed swallowtail butterfly (Papilio multicaudata). Swallowtails are the largest species of butterflies in the United States, with wingspans that can range up to 6 inches! 

In addition to black and yellow-streaked Two-Tailed, Black, and Western Tiger Swallowtails, the vibrant blue Pipevine Swallowtail is an Arizona wildlife observer’s delight! Like the Monarch butterfly, Pipevine Swallowtails are armed with a self-defense mechanism: their preferred larval host plant makes it, both as a caterpillar and butterfly, unpalatable and even poisonous to predators!

Pieridae (Whites and Sulphurs)

Pieridae family of butterflies

When you see a small butterfly that’s white, it’s common to misidentify it as a moth. Butterflies in the Pieridae family are especially susceptible to misidentification. 

There are a few differences between moths and butterflies to remember: moth bodies are often furry and thicker than butterflies, their antennae are feathered whereas butterflies have slender, knobbed antennae, and moths rest with their wings folded back and horizontal. 

If you see a small to medium white or pale yellow butterfly with a low, looping, or zig-zagging flight pattern and they have thin antennae with knobs at the tip, it is likely a butterfly belonging to the Pieridae family!

Hesperiidae (Skippers)

Hesperiidae family of butterflies

This family of butterflies has a furry body that is larger in proportion to the wings, so they can also easily be confused for moths. They also have broad heads crowned by short, hooked antennae and very large eyes. You may see this small to medium butterfly searching for nectar in a canyon, wash, or brushland with a rapid and skipping flight pattern.

Where to See Butterflies in Arizona

In general, butterflies are most commonly seen in spring, late summer and early fall, with August and September being peak butterfly-observing season. Not all, but many butterflies do migrate and Arizona is on that common migratory path to Mexico and southern California. Monarchs famously overwinter in Mexico/California, but have also been observed overwintering in southern Arizona and the Lake Havasu area.

There really isn’t a bad state park to visit if you’re wanting to see butterflies! However, some parks host gardens with specific plants that are favorite food sources for butterflies. Check out these locations that might increase your chances of seeing a nice variety of Arizona’s butterflies.

Red Rock State Park

This park is certified and registered by Monarch Watch as a Monarch Waystation–a place that provides resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. The gardens and natural habitat of this 286-acre nature preserve provides milkweeds, nectar sources, and shelter for butterflies, creating an ideal environment for Monarchs migrating through North America. Have lunch at the picnic tables beside the Visitor Center, in the bird garden, or a stroll down by the moist riparian habitat created by Oak Creek, and you are sure to view some butterflies!

Monarch Waystation at Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona

Kartchner Caverns State Park

This state park is famous for the cave that lies below the surface of the Whetstone Mountains, but the habitat above ground is a safe haven for many animals, including butterflies! Kartchner Caverns maintains lush gardens outside its Visitor Center, including a hummingbird garden. Hummingbirds feed on nectar, just like butterflies! Take a seat on a bench and keep your eyes open for the telltale fluttering of wings. Check out the video below to see Kartchner Caverns park rangers raise and release Pipevine Swallowtails!

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

From the restored natural habitat of native wildflower meadows and native trees to the riparian resources of Pine Creek, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a rich haven for pollinators. In the fall of 2020, Southwest Monarch Study partnered with the park to increase monarch habitat in planting horsetail milkweed and butterfly milkweed. Watch the video below by Arizona Monarch Collaborative and the Arizona Game and Fish Department touring the pollinator habitat at the park.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Volunteers at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park pride themselves on eight beautiful, well-kept gardens on the park grounds. Pay special attention in the Children’s Garden, located outside the historic schoolhouse (Arizona’s second oldest one-room schoolhouse!). This garden boasts zinnias and sunflowers that attract many butterflies in the warmer months of the year. This garden was created by volunteer Myrna York in 2017.

Pollinator-friendly gardens at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Cattail Cove State Park

As mentioned, the Monarch follows a migration path down to Mexico and California, but have been observed overwintering in the Lake Havasu area. Just 15 miles south of the city, Cattail Cove State Park is a haven for not only campers and watersports enthusiasts, but also wildlife, including butterflies and other insects! Cattail Cove park rangers even maintain a monarch magnet: a Rush Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) garden, thanks to a grant from the Southwest Monarch Study through the Gila Watershed Partnership.

 

Oracle State Park

Oracle State Park is a 4,000 acre wildlife refuge in the northern foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Ranging from 4,600’ to 3,700’ in elevation, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills and panoramic vistas as it transitions from oak-woodland to desert grassland. These rolling hills are dotted by... you guessed it, butterflies! This park sits in the butterfly migration "superhighway" but even outside of migrating species, this park experiences seasonal butterfly population explosions. Here, Pipevine Swallowtail populations emerge from dormancy several times a year, and Painted Ladies pass through the park each year during their migration.

When you see these migrating species, reflect on the triumph of their journey. These insects only live about 30 days each, but butterfly migrations often take as long as six months. That means the butterflies that make it to their destination are the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of those who started the yearly flight!

Oracle State Park wildlife refuge

Butterfly observation tips

Butterfly observation journalButterfly watching can be as simple as finding a flowery, sunny spot and just sitting still! Remember to bring your camera so that after a butterfly flits off, you can still practice identifying it later with your field guide. Other helpful materials, in addition to a camera and field guide, include binoculars, magnifying glass, and a butterfly observation log (download our handy butterfly journal). More advanced butterfly observers may appreciate the Central Arizona Butterfly Association’s butterfly checklist.

Be aware of your surroundings and make notes of where you spotted each butterfly: their habitat and preferred food sources can sometimes be helpful in identifying which species you observed!

Arizona Butterfly Garden Plants

Butterflies are appreciated not only for their beauty but also for their role as plant pollinators! They sometimes even have the advantage of using their tubular feelers to pollinate narrow nectar-based flowers where bees can’t fit.

Lepidopterists (scientists who study butterflies and monarchs) have observed that certain species, including Monarchs, and their habitats have declined. If you’re looking to help these beautiful pollinators, consider planting a butterfly-friendly garden! 

Include nectar-rich plants like zinnias, Lantana, Baja Fairy Duster, bottlebrush, and Wooly Butterflybush, which are great for attracting butterflies. Don’t forget, butterflies need food for their entire lifecycles, so include larval host plants, like milkweed, Penstemon, hackberry trees, Pipevine and Passion vine, Desert Senna, Brittlebush, and Mallows. Butterflies will lay their eggs and once hatched, the caterpillars will eat the plants leaves and flowers. Pick the right plants, which will quickly regrow new leaves and there is no need to fret about the hungry, hungry caterpillar.

Create your own butterfly garden

Provide the best habitat for these insects by grouping your plants together, rather than spreading them out or planting a single plant. You can even make this a community effort by organizing with your neighbors! Remember to review soil, hardiness zone, and light/shade requirements before planting. 

Lastly, to be an extra great butterfly host, include a shallow water feature in your garden. Butterflies exercise a behavior called mud puddling, where they sip out salts and minerals from moisture on surfaces. However, they don’t land on water, so this can be as simple as soil and rocks in a pie tin, covered with a bit of water and placed in a sunny area.

For more information on creating your own butterfly garden in Arizona, check out the following helpful resources:

"Desert Butterfly Gardening" by the Arizona Native Plant Society and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute, at your local library

Suggested plants for SE Arizona by the North American Butterfly Association

A guide on butterfly gardening by the Central Arizona Butterfly Association

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