Massachusetts is home to almost all Northeastern butterfly species that inhabit North America. The state is either a permanent home or a temporary home, as is the case with migratory species.
Native Massachusetts plants such as the Indigo bush are used as host plants by many butterflies, together with trees such as willows.
While a small state, Massachusetts is still an area where butterflies are common, often from spring to fall. Here are the most common species likely to be encountered around the state.
Table of Contents
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are the most common butterflies in the state and many other North American regions.
This species is commonly seen in milkweed. It stands out with its vivid contrasting coloring.
Orange and black colors are specific to this highly common butterfly species.
Monarch butterflies on the East Coast and in states such as Massachusetts are known for their annual migration to Florida or Mexico.
This species makes its way South where it overwinters before heading back North in the spring.
Monarch butterflies are a protected species in the US.
These butterflies face threats such as a diminishing natural habitat and parasites such as tachinid flies or Pteromalid parasitic wasps.
2. Small White
Small White butterflies (Pieris rapae) are a common sight in gardens and cabbage crops across the state. These butterflies feed on colorful flower nectar as adults.
The small white caterpillar feeds on cabbages. As a diurnal species, the caterpillar is seen boring into the central portion of cabbages for new softer leaves to consume.
Damages to cabbages are constant throughout the day of the caterpillar growth.
Once the adult butterfly emerges, it can be identified by its white forewings and white hindwings.
A dark body is specific to this butterfly. It contrasts the white or off-white wings of the species.
3. Black Swallowtail
Mock bishopweed is one of the most common host plants of this butterfly species (Papilio polyxenes).
These butterflies stand out on plants given they have a mostly black color as adults and a green and black color as caterpillars.
Black swallowtail butterflies live longer than other species in Massachusetts.
A reduced number of natural enemies is among the causes that benefit the species.
A lek mating system is also specific to Black Swallowtail butterflies. Males congregate together showcasing their colorful wings.
Females get to choose which male to mate with by visiting an area with high numbers of males.
4. Small Copper
Common sorrel and sheep sorrel are some of the host plants Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) can be seen around.
These butterflies lay white eggs that grow into caterpillars right on the host plant.
Small Copper butterflies eventually become a colorful species with white underwings and colorful darker dorsal wings.
The brown color is specific to the dorsal wings with orange sections dominating the forewings and also visible on the hindwings.
This species is found in all sunny habitats across the state. It doesn’t necessarily need to live next to woodlands as it’s a species also commonly seen in parks.
5. Pearl Crescent
With a wingspan of up to 1.7 inches, Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) are a small colorful species found across the state.
Open areas are preferred by this species. This is why it can be found on roadsides, next to parks and woodlands, and in areas rich in asters.
Most asters are suitable hosts for Pearl Crescent caterpillars.
Adults feed on dogbane and swamp milkweed.
You can identify this species by its orange and black coloring.
Orange is the base color while black (sometimes gray or charcoal) patterns decorate its wings.
You can see several Pearl Crescent broods per year up to November in the state.
6. Red-spotted Admiral
The black-colored Red-spotted Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) emerges in May after overwintering as a caterpillar.
Various trees and plants serve as Red-spotted Admiral caterpillar hosts.
Black cherry plants are among the favored toxin-rich plants of the species.
Trees are very good hosts for the caterpillars as well. Birch trees and willows are among the most common caterpillar hosts.
Multiple morphs of this butterfly are seen across the country.
It’s believed the species with more white spots and marks on the dorsal wings are specific to the state.
7. American Lady
This colorful butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) starts life as an almost all-black caterpillar on everlasting plants in the North.
A black body with bright bands and white spots is specific to the caterpillar.
Black becomes a secondary color on adult American Lady butterflies while orange covers a large section of the wings.
Larger than other common species in the state such as Pearl Crescents, American Lady butterflies reach a wingspan of up to 2.4 inches.
These butterflies are also known for showing multiple large eyespots on the hindwings.
8. Peck’s Skipper
You can find Peck’s Skipper butterflies (Polites peckius) in multiple areas across the state.
Grassy fields are among its favorite habitats.
This is a species of butterflies tied to grass plants as hosts for its caterpillar. Rice cutgrass is a common host for its caterpillars.
Adults feed on plant nectar from a series of short plants.
Among them, you can find thistles and red clovers tend to dominate feeding preferences.
These butterflies are also known for having the ability to fold their forewings up, which allows them to look distinct, as other skipper butterflies in the state.
9. Silver-spotted Skipper
This butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) is one of the most common large brown species across the state. Almost the entire dorsal surface of its wings is brown.
Butterflies of the Silver-spotted Skipper genus are found in grass-rich areas across the state plus crops.
It can be a soybean pest, albeit not to the extent other butterflies are on these crops.
A common sight even in riparian areas, these butterflies lay eggs on host plants. Silk protection is often seen around its caterpillar as they have multiple natural predators.
This species has multiple natural predators such as paper wasps and some types of ants
10. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
This colorful butterfly (Papilio glaucus) is seen across multiple areas within the state. This includes the edges of woodlands, grasslands, and parks.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are generalist butterflies which means their varied diet allows them to be present in multiple habitats.
Growing size of at least 3.3 inches, these butterflies can also be some of the largest in the state.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails grow to a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches.
Females of the species are dimorphic and known to have a darker brown-dominant color.
11. Spicebush Swallowtail
Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus) can be seen on spicebush around the state.
These butterflies show mimicry traits both as adults and as caterpillars.
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars have a brown late instar color. This means they mimic bird droppings which may make some predators move along.
These butterflies show a few distinct traits such as puddling, and the capacity of males to stick together when extracting nutrients from mud.
Butterflies of this genus are also known to have multiple mating partners during the season. Both males and females mate multiple times within the season.
12. Zabulon Skipper
Zabulon Skipper butterflies (Lon zabulon) are seen on grasses next to roads or near woodlands across the state.
They are most active in the afternoon when males seek out females for mating.
These butterflies are seen in a couple of broods per year in the state.
The first brood appears between May and July. A secondary brood is seen from August to September.
You can identify this species by its brown and yellow colors. Dorsal coloring is brown-dominating while ventral coloring is yellow-dominating.
The species can fold its forewings up, similarly to other skipper-genus butterflies.
13. Red Admiral
Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) are common black butterflies across the state and in other Northern states.
The populations of this species grow in the spring when new butterflies move North from Southern climates.
This species is migratory as it seeks warm climates for overwintering.
False nettle and stinging nettle are among the most important plants for the species.
Ivy is an important plant for these butterflies as well, but only in Europe.
Red Admirals in Europe tend to have a long flight season compared to other species. Those in Massachusetts prefer to move South in the fall in a large-scale migration process.
14. Eastern Tailed-Blue
Yellow sweet clover and alfalfa are among the common hosts of the Eastern Tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) across the state.
This species is among the few seen in 3 broods per year in the North, mainly due to its long flight season.
It appears across the state as soon as April and it continues flying up to November.
The species can be recognized by its unique light blue color with large black margins across the forewings and the hindwings.
Ventral coloring is mostly white with black and orange patterns closer to the margins of the wings.
15. Mourning Cloak
Mourning Cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) are easier to identify compared to other species as they have unique patterns.
These butterflies don’t resemble other species across Massachusetts.
The dark brown base color is specific to the species. While there are other brown butterflies in the state, they lack the wide yellow margins with blue dots the Mourning Cloak has.
This butterfly species has gray to brown ventral coloring with similar broad bright margins as those seen on the dorsal side of the wings.
The color of the species resembles tree bark. It might be influenced by the overwintering sight of the species.
Mourning Cloak butterflies often overwinter under tree bark where it starts to peel away from the tree trunk.
16. Painted Lady
These migratory butterflies (Vanessa cardui) use numerous colors to improve camouflage.
Orange, brown, black, white, tan, and gray are just a few colors seen across the wings of the species.
These a some of the most common migratory butterflies in the state, as they move South before winter settles in.
Butterflies of this genus are also known for hiding in their caterpillar stage.
They build silk cocoon-like structures around leaves where caterpillars grow. These structures keep them out of sight for typical caterpillar predators such as wasps.
Butterflies of the species are seen feeding on flower nectar from various asters and occasionally on aphid honeydew.
17. Clouded Sulphur
Red clovers around the state are a common habitat and food source for Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice).
These butterflies are also commonly seen on species such as soybean and alfalfa crops.
Clouded Sulphurs are some of the most resilient butterfly species in the state. They live even further North, even covering much of Canada.
The species is identified by its yellow or pale yellow coloring. This color is seen across its forewings and hindwings.
Black margins and a black body contrast the large yellow sections on the wings.
This butterfly is also seen in a few morphs, particularly among females. They can sometimes have white coloring.
18. Little Wood Satyr
These butterflies (Megisto cymela) stand out with their large eyespots on their tan-white wings.
Darker brown lines are seen across the ventral wings of the species.
Some data suggests Little Wood Satyr butterflies rely on flying patterns to avoid predators, alongside the eyespots. They have a skipping pattern in their flight.
The diet of the Little Wood Satyr is a bit different from the diet of most other butterflies in the state.
Adult butterflies of this genus eat fruits and tree sap. They have also been observed consuming sweet aphid honeydew.
You can see this type of butterfly in areas with tall grasses from April onwards.
19. Great Spangled Fritillary
Meadows are among the ideal places to find Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies (Speyeria cybele) across the state.
These butterflies are a constant presence throughout North America and are typically recognized by their coloring.
Brown, yellow, and black colors are specific to the species.
A large brown section is seen on the forewings while the hindwings show a yellow color. Black patterns cover the wings.
This butterfly is typically small with only the largest members of the species reaching a wingspan longer than 3 inches.
20. Gray Hairstreak
Gray Hairstreak butterflies (Strymon melinus) are generalists with a tendency to use legumes as hosts.
You can find their caterpillars feeding on different types of clovers native to the state.
Butterflies of the species may also be found next to woodlands or in woodland openings.
This species has a light blue color with darker blue nuances across the forewings.
Orange and black spots are seen at the base of the forewings.
White margins contrast the almost uniform blue coloring of the wings.
White is also the dominant color of the ventral wings of the species which partially show black patterns.
21. Common Wood-Nymph
Thistles and butterfly weeds across the state are typical hosts of the Common Wood-Nymph (Cercyonis pegala).
Most people know this species as a brown butterfly with 2 eyespots on the forewings.
Common Wood-Nymph butterflies are almost generalists as they can be found in all types of habitats across the state, including crops.
This includes clovers and wild carrot plants which host the caterpillar of the species.
Butterflies of this genus appear in up to a couple of broods per year.
They only fly until October.
Common Wood-Nymph butterflies are known to have a varying wingspan between 2 and 3 inches.
22. Common Ringlet
This species of butterfly (Coenonympha california) is almost completely white. It has pale orange and tan coloring across its wings which makes it one of the brightest butterflies in the state.
Mostly seen just above the ground in sunny areas, this butterfly is known to fly only over short distances.
Up to 3 broods of Common Ringlet butterflies are seen each year with mild coloring distinctions.
Late broods are known to have darker yellow nuances across the wings.
You can find this specie son various sedges across the state.
Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) are some of the most common species resembling Monarchs across the state.
These butterflies also have black and orange coloring, just like the more common Monarch butterfly.
Defensive tactics in the species start from the caterpillar stage. Viceroy caterpillars resemble bird droppings.
Adults have defensive tactics which include having a bad taste for predators, a result of ingesting toxins from host plants.
You can find Viceroy butterflies around water sources, particularly on willows around the state.
Adult Viceroy butterflies don’t feed on willows. They are seen feeding on thistles and milkweed nectar.
24. Dun Skipper
Dun Skipper butterflies (Euphyes vestris) are also commonly found in wet areas around the states, but to a larger extent compared to Viceroy butterflies.
The species has dark brown coloring with faded yellow sections across the wings.
You can find the species feeding on various flowers such as purple vetch, thistles, and milkweed.
Only one brood of Dun Skipper butterflies is seen each season.
This species only flies until early August.
Its caterpillars appear in June, mainly on different sedges.
25. Spring Azure
Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) are some of the most short-lived butterflies across the state.
The species has a light blue color across the wings and a dark blue to black color across the body.
Spring Azure caterpillars are mostly white.
This genus is also part of a small group of butterflies across the state. Their wingspan can be as short as 0.8 inches.
You can find Spring Azure butterflies next to swamps, on grassland as well as next to woodlands.
26. Northern Broken-Dash
Dark brown with yellow sections, this type of butterfly (Polites egeremet) lives in almost all Northeastern US habitats.
It’s further characterized by white margins that run along its forewings and hindwings.
The species is small, with an average wingspan of 1.05 inches.
Many butterflies of the Northern Broken-Dash genus live next to woodlands, abandoned fields, or on roadsides where various types of grass grow.
Adults of the species feed on flower nectar with a preference for dogbane.
They mostly fly just above the ground.
27. Common Buckeye
Common Buckeye butterflies (Junonia coenia) are seen across the state until early fall.
They begin migration Southwards as they cannot survive winters even in a caterpillar state up North.
Brown color with large eyespots is characteristic of Common Buckeyes.
These butterflies have an almost black dorsal color as caterpillars with a few brown lines as well.
Butterflies of this genus need their caterpillar colors and adult eyespots to keep a large number of predators away.
They are sought after by birds and wasps, among other typical predators.
28. Least Skipper
Most common in areas with tall grasses, the Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor) gets its name from its poor flying abilities compared to other skipper butterflies.
Seen around tall grasses, this species mostly flies over short distances.
Least Skipper butterflies first appear in the spring. Its summertime presence is the most common around Massachusetts.
Butterflies of this family are not seen throughout the year, as in other Southern states.
You can identify this species by its combination of dark brown and yellow colors.
29. Eastern Pine Elfin
Eastern Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon) is one of the species seen at higher altitudes.
As its name implies, it relies on pines for multiplication. These butterflies are seen on white pine and other types of pine.
Eastern Pine Elfin caterpillars are seen feeding on pine just until they reach adulthood.
Since they’re mostly seen at high altitudes, these butterflies also appear later in the season.
It’s not uncommon to see the first Eastern Pine Elfins in mid-June.
30. Wild Indigo Duskywing
This brown butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae) gets its name from the indigo plants it relies on as hosts.
A couple of broods of Wild Indigo Duskywing butterflies are seen each season across the state.
The first brood arrives until June while the second brood appears up until August.
Adults don’t rely on indigo plants at all. Instead, they consume flower nectar from species such as dogbane and blackberry.
The largest Wild Indigo Duskywing butterflies reach a size of up to 1.6 inches.