Native Iowa butterflies and moths: Skippers and swallowtails

More than 70 species of butterflies have been spotted in Dickinson County.

And yet, the order Lepidoptera is made up of about 90 percent moths.

So between butterflies and moths, there is a lot of fluttering action going on around us.

(Learn the difference between butterflies and moths.)

During the first Pollinator Education Series program, naturalist Ashley Hansen discussed many of Iowa's native butterflies and moths.

For the next couple of weeks, we will break down different native butterflies and moths you might see as the seasons change and spring and summer approach.


The family Hesperiidae has 42 species in Iowa, 25 of which are found in Dickinson County. They tend to act like butterflies but look like moths with short, thick bodies.

brown and gold moth on floweropens IMAGE file

Peck's skipper

The Peck's skipper is one of Iowa's most abundant skippers that is seen all summer, from May-October. They like open areas and are often seen along creeks and permanent pastures eating nectar from red clover, thistles, blue vervain, common milkweed, swamp milkweed, dogbane and New Jersey tea.

Their caterpillars feed on rice cut-grass, bluegrass and panic grass.

brown moth with white on wingopens IMAGE file

Silver-spotted skipper

The silver-spotted skipper is often seen May through mid-July at blue, red, pink, purple and cream-colored blooms. It almost never visits yellow flowers. It loves everlasting pea, common milkweed, red clover, buttonbush, blazing star and the dreaded thistle.

Silver-spotted skipper caterpillars eat foliage of locust trees, wisteria, alfalfa and stick-tights.


The family Papilionidae has only three species in Dickinson County. They are well-known butterflies because they can easily be identified by their size and the tails at the end of their hindwings.

black moth with yellow and blue tail accentsopens IMAGE file

Black swallowtail

Seen April-October, black swallowtails will, instead of landing and drinking nectar, often hover with their forewings constantly moving.

Their caterpillars eat plant in the carrot family, including Queen Anne's lace, parsley, wild parsnip and dill.

yellow moth with black and blue accentsopens IMAGE file

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtails have a vibrant yellow color and blue along the hindwing. The male (pictured above) has a small amount of blue spots, while a female has a wide blue ridge along the hindwing. Females can also have a color morph in which they miss the main yellow color on the wing and instead are mostly black.

Adult eastern tiger swallowtails love coneflowers, and caterpillars feed on ash, cherry, poplar and willow leaves.

larger in size, black moth with yellow accentsopens IMAGE file

Giant swallowtail

The giant swallowtail is the largest butterfly in Iowa with wingspans up to 6 inches and can be seen May-September.

caterpillar on a plant stemopens IMAGE file

Giant swallowtail caterpillar

Its caterpillar has an interesting feature that sets it apart. It has two red tentacles on its head called osmeterium that come out omit an unpleasant odor when waved around if the caterpillar is startled or handled.

(Read part II of this series: Sulphurs and blues)

Keep a handy field guide with you to identify some of the most common moths and butterflies in Dickinson County. Click on the photo below for a free, downloadable PDF.

butterflies and moths field guideopens PDF file

Click on the image for a downloadable PDF

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  1. Angie calhoun on July 3, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    I had a strange looking big on sliding glass door. I think it was a month. Can I send a pic to have it identified?