Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







The Butterfly Naming Game

As is the case with all known plants and animals, butterflies have a scientific name. But most of us don't know--or really care--about scientific names, so we use common names for many creatures. So it is with butterflies.

Many of the butterfly common names are based on the way the insect appears. For example, the swallowtails. The common name of these butterflies is based on the swallow-like extension of the back wing. Swallowtails are medium-to-large butterflies that can be found world wide. Not all of the swallowtail butterflies in the world actually have “swallow tails” but the ones found in the Midwest do.

These attractive butterflies that we call swallowtails don't all look alike, so they have special names. For instance, the tiger swallowtail. This swallowtail is yellow with black on the outside of the wings. And it also has black stripes. The color and the stripes give it the name of tiger.

There is also a swallowtail that is mostly black with a few yellow dots. It is known as the black swallowtail. Another mostly black swallowtail is called the spicebush after one of its larval food plants. This species does not have stripes but does have a few yellow dots on the front wings and some blue dots on the back wings.

Now to really confuse the issue of swallowtail identification, there is also a black form of the tiger swallowtail. In most cases, it is the female of the tiger swallowtail that is black. This is where most of us are satisfied to be able to identify a swallowtail.           

Another swallowtail is called the zebra. You can probably guess that it has black and white stripes. Zebra swallowtail larvae feed on papaw leaves so, with a fairly limited food plant, this swallowtail is not as common as most of the others. 

The largest of the swallowtails found in the Midwest is appropriately called the giant swallowtail. It is mostly black above with a yellow dotted X on the front wings. The insect is mostly yellow beneath. This insect is also called the orange dog because in the South it feeds in citrus groves. In the Midwest, it feeds on ash or hoptree leaves.

Smaller than the swallowtails, but much more common, are the butterflies called the whites and the sulfurs. Both names are based on the major color of the insect, which is white or yellow. There are many species of these butterflies, so they also have names based on details of their color pattern.

Among the whites are the checkered white, which has blotches of black on the white background. There is a veined white where the black color follows the veins of the wing. The orange-tip white has an orange tip on the front wings.

The sulfurs are very common in our summer fields. The most common is probably the so-called common sulfur. It is the yellow butterfly with the black edges on the wings. But there is also the sulfur called the dogface sulfur, where the black on the edges of the wings produces an outline that looks like the face of a dog.

There are butterflies called coppers that are, well, copper-colored. If you look closely, you will see blue-colored butterflies that are popularly known as the blues. Which could be a type of music, but in this case it is the name of a small butterfly.

We also have question mark butterflies that have the shape of a question mark on the wings. And anglewings, where the outside edge of the wings is angular rather than smooth. The checkerspots are brown butterflies with checkered wings.

Swallowtails, checkerspots, coppers, blues, sulfurs and whites. Together, these and other butterflies flying over our gardens and fields are one of the visual delights of summer, even if you don't know one from the other!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox