How to tell apart four orange and black butterflies

An orange and black butterfly flits by.

Many people immediately think “monarch,” but there are actually quite a number of orange and black butterflies in Iowa and throughout the United States.

Three butterflies in the Iowa Great Lakes area that often get confused with the monarch butterfly are the painted lady, viceroy and red admiral. So let’s take a look at how to tell some of these common butterflies apart!

Graphic of four different butterflies

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
The monarch butterfly is perhaps the poster child for butterflies. It is easily spotted because of its large, bright orange wings with black lines. It also has a thick black band on the edge of its wings with white spots.

In Iowa, the monarch butterfly is usually sighted July-September, with numbers slowly increasing until peak migration time about the first week of September. During this point, monarch butterflies may gather in great numbers on trees or other wind-protected areas to roost before continuing the journey south to overwinter in Mexico.

Its host plant is milkweed, so it will lay all eggs on milkweed, and its caterpillars only eat milkweed. As an adult, it will forage for nectar on a variety of native prairie flowers.

(Read about the monarch’s life cycle)

Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
The viceroy looks closest to the monarch butterfly because it is a mimic of the monarch. It also has rusty-orange wings with black veins, however, it has a black line on its hind wing that the monarch does not have. It also has a crossband on its forewing — the top wing — that has white spots, which the monarch does not have.

It can be seen mid-May through October with peaks in August. Its larvae will consume willows and aspens.

(Five plants to start your pollinator garden)

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)
Although also orange and black, the painted lady has quite a different pattern from a monarch butterfly. As the wings approach the body, they become almost a dusty brown, and the lower wings have a mottled appearance. They are also similar to the American lady butterfly but have blue-centered eyespots on the lower hind wing. American lady butterflies have two large eyespots on the hind wing.

Painted lady butterflies can be seen early April through mid-November, with the peak in July and August. They larvae often eat thistle species, but more than 100 host plants have been recorded worldwide. The painted lady is one of the most largely distributed butterflies in the world and has been found on all continents except Australia and Antactica.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
The red admiral has more black than the other butterflies listed. It has a black upper forewing with a bright, diagonal red band that sometimes appears orange. It also has a red marginal band on its hindwing — the bottom wing. The lower hindwing — the underside or bottom of the lower wing — is mottled brown, black and tan.

The red admiral is a breeding resident of Iowa, and its larvae eats nettles.

Graphic of four butterflies and their wingspans

Size is also a great way to tell other brush-footed butterflies apart from the monarch butterfly. The monarch butterfly is quite large in comparison to the others, with a wingspan of 9-10 cm. The viceroy has a wingspan of 6.7-7.5 cm. The painted lady is even smaller with a 5.1-5.5 cm wingspan, and the red admiral is the smallest yet with a 4.5-5.5 cm wingspan.

You can also see in the graphics the differences in patterns.

Although all four butterflies are in the Nymphalidae family of brush-footed butterflies, each is different in its own way.

(Learn more about butterflies in the Nymphalidae family)

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