To those unfamiliar with the state or region, images of Boston or its coastal areas that include Martha’s Vineyard and the Nantucket Islands may come to mind when thinking of Massachusetts. With mountains, hills, and coastal plains, Massachusetts offers numerous habitats for its diverse wildlife. The varying geography throughout the state plays home to a large selection of butterflies in Massachusetts, from big to small, and colorful to camouflage.
That’s exactly what we’re going to learn about in this article, some of the most common types of butterflies in Massachusetts.
9 Butterflies in Massachusetts
1. Eastern Tailed-Blue
Scientific name: Cupido comyntas
One of the most common butterflies in Massachusetts, the eastern tailed-blue is a small, delicate butterfly that prefers open, sunny areas. The common name fits the male more than the female; the male is iridescent blue on his upper, often with a darker blue or whitish margin.
The female, on the other hand, are brown on their uppers; some spring-brood females have blue at the bases of their wings. At rest with wings folded, this butterfly has a pale underside with black, irregular spots, and three bright orange spots.
Lending greatly to this species’ commonality is its food habits. Caterpillars and adults enjoy numerous garden and native plants.
2. Milbert’s Tortoiseshell
Scientific name: Aglais milberti
A medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan reaching 2 ½-inches, Milbert’s tortoiseshell is a striking butterfly with bold markings. Uppers are black with a thick band near the margin that fades into an orange and yellow ombre. A thin black margin lines the wings, sometimes broken up by pale blue spots.
Females sometimes lay up to 900 eggs in a batch on host plants, which include various species of nettle. Populations are found throughout the state in specific areas, typically near wet areas.
3. Long-tailed Skipper
Scientific name: Urbanus proteus
A butterfly’s common name often gives a clue about the species itself; the long-tailed skipper is no exception! This species is a larger skipper, reaching over 2 ½-inches, with distinctive coloring and, yes, particularly long tails on the hind wings. Unlike many other butterflies, this species’ wings aren’t the colorful part — its body is.
The body is iridescent bluish-green, reminiscent of certain species of hummingbirds. Like other skippers, the long-tailed is stout-bodied with shorter wings in proportion to its body size. This skipper’s preferred habitat is open areas; food sources are varied and plentiful.
4. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Scientific name: Papilio glaucus
Several swallowtail species inhabit various regions throughout the state, including the large, colorful eastern tiger. Reaching a wingspan of 4 ½-inches, it’s hard to miss when one is nearby. Its namesake is dark “tiger” stripes on the yellow upper wings, present in all males and most females (some females are nearly black with less visible striping).
Females also display iridescent blue markings on their hindwings. Caterpillars have numerous host plants throughout the state, primarily various tree species found throughout the various regions. As such, these particular swallowtails frequent areas with mature trees, including suburban backyards, parks, and wooded areas.
5. Mustard White
Scientific name: Pieris oleracea
The mustard white reaches just over 2-inches and closely resembles its close relatives in the same family. The wing uppers are nearly pure white, although some variations of the species sport black spots on the forewings. The underside of the wings displays an interesting pattern of grayish-greenish “veins,” earning this species’ other common name: Gray-veined white.
Several whites inhabit the state, many using common garden vegetables as their larval host plants. As such, the larval forms of this and other whites are sometimes considered pestilent.
6. Oak Hairstreak
Scientific name: Satyrium favonius
Hairstreaks are common throughout much of the state; the oak hairstreak is no exception. Like many other hairstreaks and Lycaenidae butterflies, this species is one of the smallest butterflies in Massachusetts and reaches no more than 1 ½-inches in wingspan. What it lacks in size, it makes up for with an interesting display of bright blues and oranges on brown, leaf-like wings.
The hindwings have somewhat long tails, adding to this tiny flutterer’s distinctive appearance. It may come as no surprise that the larval hosts are oak species.
7. Mourning Cloak
Scientific name: Nymphalis antiopa
With wings folded, this medium-sized butterfly is unassuming with a brown, barklike underside lined with a white margin. Unfolded, this species’ wings display a deep, almost-maroon color with a bright yellow-to-white margin lined with blue dots on the inner edge. As its common name suggests, this butterfly appears to be wearing a richly colored cloak.
This migratory butterfly prefers numerous willow species as larval hosts; adults prefer the sap of oak trees. Adults live an astounding 10 to 11 months, making it among the longest-lived butterflies — if not the longest-lived.
Scientific name: Danaus plexippus
Quite possibly the most revered and well-known butterfly species in the United States, the monarch is synonymous with habitat protection. This migratory species’ overwintering ranges in Mexico and parts of California are of particular concern. The monarch is a large butterfly, reaching nearly 5-inches in some adult specimens.
The bright orange wings are patterned with black borders and lines; white spots dot the margins of the wings. Caterpillars prefer milkweeds, a plant that provides both larvae and adults with a particular protection measure: glycosides from the plant give this species a horrible taste that protects them from birds and other predators.
9. Painted Lady
Scientific name: Vanessa cardui
The painted lady is a striking, medium-sized butterfly reaching nearly 3-inches. The upperside is deep orange to orangish-brown with wide black patches broken with irregular white spots on the tips of the forewings. The hindwings are lined with small black spots.
At rest, the underside of the wings displays four eyespots against a brown, blackish, or gray background. The painted lady is found throughout Massachusetts and is widespread across the world; it inhabits all continents with the exception of Antarctica and Australia. The larvae feed on an extensive selection of host plants, possibly lending to this butterfly’s widespread distribution.