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More than just monarchs: a guide to Manitoba’s butterflies

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November 24, 2022

It’s easy to recognize the fluttering orange wings and beautiful black stripes of a monarch, but did you know Manitoba is home to 144 species of butterfly?

That’s what 54 people learned when they tuned into a CPAWS Manitoba webinar in October 2022 with Kirstyn Eckhardt, a graduate student in entomology at the University of Manitoba.

Learn More: CPAWS Manitoba Speaker Series

Kirstyn taught us how to identify the five families of butterflies in Manitoba based on their body structures, including wing shape, size, colours, and behaviour.

We also looked at several species in detail from each major group, noting the features and characteristics to help us identify each butterfly.

You can watch a recording of the webinar on the CPAWS Manitoba Vimeo page.

Why should you care about identifying butterflies?

“Some of it is probably curiosity and just a desire to know more about the world around us,” said Kirstyn.

“But I think David Attenborough said it really well—no one will protect what they don’t care about and no one’s going to care about what they haven’t experienced. So the desire to protect the species around us comes with an awareness of the things that are out there,” she added.

How do you categorize butterflies?

To categorize butterflies, you’ll need to know a bit about a branch of science called taxonomy—a way of describing relationships between organisms and categorizing them based on similar traits they share.

You’ll also need to know a bit of latin — using the latin names of families is helpful in telling us how organisms are related to one another, and the latin names of species are used universally around the world.

What are the five families of butterfly in Manitoba?

Family Nymphalidae

  • Contains some of our most well-known species (including monarchs)
  • Hugely diverse in physical appearance
  • Common name: “brush-foots” due to a cone-like structure on their first pair of legs
  • Their first pair of legs is vestigial (not used for walking or standing) so they stand on four legs instead of six.

Family Papilionidae

  • Common name: “swallowtails”
  • Only two species are found in southern Manitoba (black swallowtail and Canadian tiger swallowtail)
  • Very large in size
  • Long “tails” on hind wings
  • Mostly yellow and black in colour with some red and blue markings
  • Dill, parsley, carrots, and cilantro are host plants for these caterpillars

Family Hesperiidae

  • Common name: “skippers”
  • Named for their active, skipping flight (very energetic!)
  • Includes some of Manitoba’s most endangered butterflies (poweshiek skipperling, mottled duskywing, silver-spotted skipper)
  • Often mistaken for moths
  • Most are small in size
  • Thick bodies
  • Stubby wings
  • Hooked or club antennae

Family Lycaenidae

  • Common name: “Gossamer-wings”
  • Named for their delicate wings thought to resemble gossamer fabric
  • Includes some of Manitoba’s smallest butterflies (silvery blues, harvesters, striped hairstreak)
  • Black and white striped antennae and legs
  • Often brightly coloured
  • Weak, erratic flight

DYK? Harvesters in the family Lycaenidae are the only butterfly that is carnivorous. Their caterpillars feed on woolly alder aphids instead of plants.

Family Pieridae

  • Common name: “whites and sulphurs”
  • Named for their colouring (yellow, white, or orange)
  • Black borders on upper side of wings
  • Small to medium in size
  • Most abundant species
  • Includes the cabbage white, one of the few non-native butterfly species in Manitoba, as well as the large marble, orange sulphur, and pink-edged sulphur.

What other factors are important when identifying butterflies?

There are two important factors to note when identifying butterflies:

  • Where is it? (what kind of habitat?)
  • When is it? (what time of year?)

Kirstyn gave us the example of seeing a butterfly that could be one of two similar-looking species: The common checkered skipper and the northern grizzled skipper. The first hangs out in fields, pastures and yards in late summer. The later prefers the boreal forest ecosystem and is found in spring.

Using these context clues, she managed to identify the butterfly as the common checkered skipper as it was late August and near a farmer’s field.

What’s the difference between butterflies and moths?

It can be tricky to tell apart butterflies from moths, explained Kirstyn.

One major difference between the two species is the way they hold their wings. At rest, butterflies might hold their wings folded upright over their backs, spread completely open and flat, or at a 45 degree angle. Moths, on the other hand, hold their wings down across their backs, completely covering their body. 

Another way to identify butterflies from moths is to look at the shape of their antennae. Moths typically have feathery, cone-like or thin, thread-like antennae. Most butterflies have clubbed or hooked antennae, which thicken toward the top end or curve slightly outward.

Watch the webinar recording to learn more about butterflies in Manitoba.

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