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)

10 Comments

  1. K. Hitchen on July 12, 2019 at 9:02 pm

    We’ve been seeing maybe a dozen or so Red Admiral’s flying through our backyard after dinner while sitting on our back deck. They are friendly and land close to where we sit! I was able to take great shots of them. They look like they are having a great time frolicking! We live in Southern NJ.

  2. Beth Schulte on July 6, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    July 7, 2019 A Red Admiral flew into my garage and I got great pictures. Never Sean in Michigan before.

    • Elizabeth West on July 6, 2019 at 6:36 pm

      Me too!! I have three on my porch looking right at me right as I type this! I’m in Clinton township, Michigan! I went to go out the door and one flew right up to me trying to follow me back in the house! Where are these coming from I’ve never seen them before! Whats odd is my late grandfather raised me and my brothers i was told our loved ones show up as butterflies. He loved harley Davidson’ motorcycles and tomatoes and that first time I noticed these butterflies was on his birthday the 4th of July sitting right up above my tomato plants! They are exactly the color of the harley emblem. A real coincidence? No idea but it’s a little weird right about now. lol In just exited as a person I rarely ever see any butterflies yet here I have three in just my yard alone. ❤

    • Deane Harker on August 16, 2019 at 5:32 pm

      I have 2-5 red admiral butterflies visit me each evening since my husband died on23 Apr 2018. I believe that he and God send them to let me know he’s ok. His high school colors were orange and black, just like the butterflies. They frequently land on me and do touch and go landings on me which I believe are kisses. They visit throughout butterfly season. I live in Seaford, Va.

  3. Kathy on July 1, 2019 at 10:54 am

    There must be a Viceroy convention in Gilman, Iowa this week. They are out in great numbers.

  4. Sharon Cross on May 26, 2019 at 6:00 pm

    I have seen several orange and black butterflies in our yard. We live in central New Mexico. Haven’t ever seen them before this year. Not sure what they are

  5. Gwen Brunson on April 24, 2019 at 11:06 pm

    Saw several (maybe less than 50) today in Martha, Oklahoma (SW part of the state). Saw hundreds of Monarchs in the same area last fall.

  6. Janet Larson on April 16, 2019 at 5:18 pm

    As I looked closer, I found a few Painted Ladies in the same area, but only a few compared to the Red Admirals.
    Evanston,Il.

  7. Janet Larson on April 16, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Have spotted several hundred Red Admiral butterflies amongst pachasandra blossoms in the yard of our condominium both yesterday and today in Evanston, Il.
    I was able to identify them with the pictures you posted under How to tell apart four orange and black butterflies.

    • kiley on April 16, 2019 at 3:31 pm

      Great!

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