Butterflies are perhaps one of the most well-known insects in the world. While some species like the monarch and painted lady are easily recognizable, there are several beautiful species that everyone would know about. There are over 700 species of butterflies in the United States, and around 170 species of butterflies in California alone.
These insects serve an important function, acting as pollinators just like bees. The famous monarch is known for pollinating the west coast during their annual migration route. Despite the large number of butterflies found in the western U.S., there are some species that are more common than others.
This list covers the eleven most common butterflies that can be found in California. From monarchs and painted ladies to swallowtails, this list includes colorful butterflies for insect lovers everywhere.
11 Common Butterfly Species in California
1. Monarch butterfly
Scientific name: Danaus plexippus
The monarch butterfly may be the most recognizable butterfly in the world, and it’s famous for its black and orange color pattern. They are equally as well known for the long migration they make each year. During this flight, the monarchs split into two groups, eastern and western. The eastern group will go to Mexico and spread to Midwestern states. The western group flies to the coast of California before reaching Arizona and Idaho.
2. California tortoiseshell
Scientific name: Nymphalis californica
The California tortoiseshell is an orange and black butterfly often mistaken for the monarch. During the summer months, they can be seen at Lassen Volcanic National Park. They are known to have population explosions, which can lead to mass migration into new areas. Their wings have a brown and grey underside to help them camouflage on tree branches. When closed, their wings look like dead leaves. The California tortoiseshell is known to migrate to the Sierra Nevada, and Cascade mountains.
3. Satyr comma
Scientific name: Polygonia satyrus
While frequently found in Western Canada, the satyr comma is also common in the state of California. It is often confused with the eastern comma due to how similar they are. This butterfly is mainly a woodland insect, preferring to stay near trees and stream edges. Their wings are ornate and contain various black spots. The Satyr comma is normally only found in the Northern part of California.
4. Red Admiral
Scientific name: Vanessa atalanta
This butterfly can be identified by its black wings with white spots and a red band. It has an average wingspan of around two inches, making it a medium-sized butterfly. It’s commonly found in gardens and not known for flying long distances. While common in California, it can easily be spotted across North America. It’s even found in South America and parts of Europe and Asia. Despite displaying the same colors found in Monarchs, they don’t look similar.
5. West Coast Lady
Scientific name: Vanessa annabella
One of three butterflies in North America known as the “painted ladies,” the West Coast Lady is common throughout California. As the name suggests, these butterflies can be spotted in many regions along the west coast. They are more drawn to open spaces and have migrated to the mountains of Colorado. It is similar to the other Vanessa butterflies in California in coloring. The cosmopolitan Vanessa cardui and eastern Vanessa virginiensis are the other two “painted ladies.”
6. American Lady
Scientific name: Vanessa virginiensis
The American Lady is common in California and most of North America. This butterfly is also found in southern regions of Canada, the Galápagos Islands, Columbia, and Central America. They prefer open spaces like meadows and beach dunes where there is not much vegetation. Their orange patterned wings have a distinctive white spot. Two blue eyespots under their hind wings distinguish them from the similar Painted Lady butterfly. Their migration patterns keeping them from being too far north during winter months, given adults aren’t well equipped for cold weather.
7. Common ringlet
Scientific name: Coenonympha tullia
Also known as the large heath, the common ringlet is commonly found in the grassy habitats of California. This is a Satyr butterfly, with the Satyr subfamily containing approximately 50 species. They are medium-sized butterflies, typically brown in color with eyespots. They can be found perching with closed wings. While common on the west coast, they can also be found in New York in the Adirondack Mountains. There are other Satyr butterflies found in the Adirondack, including the Common Wood-Nymph, Eyed Brown, and Northern Pearly-eye.
8. Clodius Parnassian
Scientific name: Parnassius clodius
Part of the swallowtail family, this white butterfly can be seen in many regions of the U.S. and Canada. It’s mainly seen on the west coast of North America, and is one of the most common species found in California. These are slow-flying insects that don’t migrate like many other types of butterflies. They can live in elevations ranging from zero to seven thousand feet. The clodius parnassion resembles the Rocky Mountain parnassion.
9. Old world swallowtail
Scientific name: Papilio machaon
Commonly found in California and most of North America is the old world swallowtail, also known just as the swallowtail. Their wingspan can run between two and four inches on average. The hind wings have a pair of tails, making this butterfly resemble the bird it is named for. They are typically seen flying around hillsides or meadows and known to frequent gardens as well.
10. Sierra Nevada parnassian
Scientific name: Parnassius behrii
As the name suggests, this butterfly is commonly found in the Sierra Nevada region of California. They frequent streams, rock slides, and alpine tundras. This butterfly can be identified by two black spots on its forewing. The hind wings have two yellow-orange spots. This species has one annual flight taken from mid-July to early September.
11. Rocky Mountain parnassian
Scientific name: Parnassius smintheus
This butterfly has a similar coloring found in the Sierra Nevada parnassian. It’s another swallowtail butterfly and can be seen frequenting high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains of California. They’re found in other areas of the U.S. as well, and up north into Canada. The overall color of these butterflies is a creamy white with some black markings. In addition to the mountains, they are also seen in foothills, forests, and meadows.