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Southern California Arthropods #3: Butterflies & Moths (Order Lepidoptera)
© W.P. Armstrong Updated August 2021

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Butterflies and moths belong to the large insect order Lepidoptera. They have complete metamorphosis (holometabolous) consisting of a egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa and adult (imago). The fully-formed, quiescent pupa of a butterfly is also called a chrysalis. Moth larva may spin an outer cocoon that contains pupa, or transform directly into a pupa without a cocoon. For example, the tomato hornworm (hawkmoth larva) burrows into the ground and transforms into a large pupa resembling a picnic jug. The Ceanothus silk moth spins a large cocoon in which the pupa develops.

The distinctive pupa of the tomato hornworm (Manduca sexta): Unlike other species of moths, the Manduca larva does not spin a cocoon. Probably every tomato gardener has unearthed the large, carmel-colored pupa with its peculiar "jug handle" appendage, which is actually a case for the developing proboscis of the adult moth. The white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) also pupates underground. The spectacular adults of these moth species appear below on this page.

March 2024: White-lined sphinx moth after emerging from its pupa stage in the rain-soaked soil. I moved it to my patio screen to dry. It flew away later that evening.

Ceanothus Silk Moth Spins A Cocoon on Chaparral Branches

Ceanothus silk moth cocoon attached to branch of laurel sumac.
Within its cocoon, the larva of silk moth transforms into a pupa. During the fall and winter months the pupa gradually undergoes metamorphosis and by late winter or early spring, an adult moth emerges from its pupal case. This is a large moth with a wing span of over five inches (13 cm). As an adult, its primary purpose is to find a member of the opposite sex and hopefully copulate. Females emit a chemical scent (pheromone) that attracts a male suitor. Adult moths have atrophied mouthparts and do not feed. They soon die after completing their sole function which is to mate and lay eggs, thus passing on their DNA and perpetuating the species. Hopefully, sufficient native chaparral will remain in this rapidly growing region of southern California to maintain a viable population of these beautiful insects.

Families Of Butterflies

Butterflies From Other Road Trips:
  1. Pipevine Swallowtail In S. Arizona
  2. Southern Snout Butterfly In Arizona
  3. Silk From Silkworm Larva In Thailand
  4. Butterflies Of San Diego Botanic Garden  

Brush-Footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Dorsal view of painted lady (Vanessa cardui).

The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) belongs to the same family of butterflies as the monarch (Danaus plexippus). Like the monarch, this species migrates in large numbers through California, particularly after a wet winter. Unlike the monarch, painted ladies do not have a spectacular mass return trip in the fall; or at least their return trip is not as widely publicized. However, sufficient numbers of these butterfies apparently return in order to maintain the population. Migration generally occurs during February and March in a northwest direction from desert regions of the United States and northern Mexico. Their flight may reach 30 miles per hour, and individuals may fly more than 100 miles in a day. They fly six to twelve feet above the ground and often hit the windshields of cars. The yellow splatch on your window is their fat supply for the long journey. They typically rise over large obstacles such as buildings, rather than flying around them. According to Arthur Shapiro (Professor of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis), the butterflies are migrating from their winter breeding grounds on the Mexican border to the Central Valley and foothills, where they will breed, feed and lay eggs. The trip takes roughly three days in good weather. The resulting caterpillars feed on various weeds, such as thistles, mallows and fiddlenecks (Amsinckia). Butterflies resulting from breeding in the Central Valley region will migrate northward to breed again in the Pacific Northwest.

This is the most widely distributed butterfly on earth, and is reported from all continents except Australia and Antarctica. According to Dr. Shapiro, painted ladies winter in North Africa and migrate to Europe for the summer, sometimes reaching as far north as Scandinavia. The bristly caterpillars commonly feed on cheeseweed (Malva parviflora) in vacant fields of southern California. They also feed on various species of thistles throughout their range. Two similar species in southern California are the west coast lady (V. annabella) and the Virginia lady (V. virginiensis).

Ventral view of painted lady (Vanessa cardui).

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) sipping nectar from flowers of Rhaphiolepis indica.

Migrating Painted Ladies sipping nectar from lantana at my home in Twin Oaks Valley, San Marcos (14 March 2019). They are on their way to Central California and northward to the Pacific Northwest.

More Images Of Painted Ladies

  Painted Lady In Coyote Creek February 2019  
Painted Lady In Santa Barbara October 2018

Monarch and Viceroy Butterfly Co-Mimics
Nymhpalidae: Danaus plexippus & Limenitis archippus

Male monarch butterfly at Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Note the black spot (scent gland) on one of the veins in each hind wing. Males use the pheromones produced by these glands to make themselves attractive to females. Females have thicker veins and no black dots.

Monarch larva (caterpillar) and chrysalis (pupa). Unlike moths, butterfly larvae do not spin cocoons.
Monarch butterflies have a remarkable migration cycle each year. Since they cannot survive the cold winters of the northern United States and Canada they must migrate thousands of miles in order to complete their life cycle. Unlike birds, the Monarchs who go south do not return where they were born. It is their offspring who make this long, arduous journey. All of the Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter on forested mountain tops in central Mexico within the Transvolcanic Range. All of the Monarchs west of the Rockies travel south along the Pacific Coast, where they overwinter in trees from north of San Francisco to San Diego. They are distasteful to some predators because of toxic chemicals ingested by the larvae while feeding on their host milkweeds (Asclepias).

Because of an accumulation of steroidal glycosides during its larval feeding stage, the adult Monarch butterfly is toxic and distasteful. Insect-eating birds soon recognize this brightly colored species and reject it as a food source. Another butterfly with similar colorations and markings is the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus). For many years, textbooks cited the Monarch and Viceroy as a classic example of Batesian mimicry, in which the Viceroy mimic was perfectly palatable to would-be predators. Recent studies indicate that the Viceroy is not an acceptable meal for birds, and therefore these two species represent an example of Mullerian mimicry.

Monarch butterfly from Mr. Wolffia's insect collection in his Entomology class at California State University, LA., circa early 1960s. This is a female because there are no scent glands on hind wings (compare with above image of male monarch). The following image is a Viceroy butterfly, a remarkable co-mimic of the Monarch.

Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus), a co-mimic of the Monarch. Both species are distasteful to birds, an excellent exammple of Mullerian mimicry. The previous title of Batesian mimicry for these 2 species has been disproven.

The larva (caterpillar) & pupa (chrysalis) of Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) are very different from the Monarch (Danaus plexippus).

Wayne's Trivia Note #754 (17 August 2021)

In my recent post-burn survey of the Comet Fire near Palomar College I found a charred pistol replica of a Colt .45. To satisfy my latest photographic obsession, I decided to compare look-alike butterflies (co-mimicry) with look-alike pistols: BB gun replica and Colt .45.

Potential Serious Problem With Monarch Chrysalis
Dark areas on the chrysalis may indicate following parasites:

(1) Bacteria or virus infection.
(2) Protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha).
(3) Chalcid wasp, tachinid fly or parasitic wasp laid eggs inside larva or pupa.

Chalcedon Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona)
on western choke-cherry Prunus virginiana var. demissa

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Lorquin's Admiral At South Fork Of Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Lorquin's Admiral (Limintis lorquini): Family Nymphalidae. This species was observed in the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon on this road trip, but the Riker Mount was purchased at swap shop in nearby Rodeo.

Metalmark Family (Family Riodinidae)

Behr's Metalmark (Apodemia mormo virgulti)

Behr's metalmark (Apodemia mormo virgulti), a small butterfly with a wingspan of 2.5 cm, is an indicator of coastal sage scrub. The caterpillar feeds on wild buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). These butterflies were hilltopping on Owens Peak north of Palomar College (10 September 2010).

Little Colorado River Near Greer, Arizona

Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti), an interesting mountain butterfly. Its range extends north to Canada and Alaska. The host plants for larvae are nettles of genus Urtica. It is most commonly found around water courses & marshes, which explains its location along the Little Colorado River near Greer.

Swallowtail Butterfly Family (Papilionidae)

Larva of the anise swallowtail butterfly (Papilio zelicaon) feeding on its favorite plant, sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). When disturbed it rears up and exposes two orange-colored fleshy horns behind the head. The horns produce a musty odor which presumambly is distasteful to predators. The quick appearance of the horns might also discourage or startle a small predator.

An adult western tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio rutulus) resting on the foliage of a Montezuma bald cypress (Taxodium mucronatum).

Adult giant swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes). This species has a conspicuous yellow band across the forewings, distinctive yellow spots across the hind wings, and yellow eyespots in the tails.

  See Pipeline Swallowtail Larva & Adult  

Skipper Family (Hesperiidae)

Common skipper (Hylephila phyleus), also called fiery skipper and lawn skipper.

cf. Funeral Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis). On lantana with above skipper.

Blue, Copper & Hairstreak Family (Lycaenidae)

Marine blue (Leptotes marina) photographed at night with flash.

Purple Hairstreak Near Metropolis Of Blythe, California

Purple hairstreak: Male Atlides halesus on desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi).

Families of Moths

Plume Moth Family (Pterophoridae)

Plume Moth (Pterophoridae).

Plume moths have a distinctive appearence when at rest. The narrow wings are folded together and are held horizontally at right angles to their slender body, superficially resembling a glider. In flight, the wings open into several featherlike divisions or plumes. The larvae of a local southern California species (Adaina amrosiae) feed on ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya).

Clothes Moth Family (Tineidae)

Beware Of The Case-Making Clothes Moth!

This is not a caddisfly! It was found on the bathroom floor at Wayne's Word. It is a case-making clothes moth (Tinea pellionella) in the family Tineidae. The brown-headed larva spins a silken case that is open at both ends. The case in the above image is covered with fine sand and debris, and superficially resembles a caddisfly case. The flattened case is about 10-11 mm long (3/8 to 1/2 inch). When crawling, the larva's head, thorax, and three pairs of legs protrude out of the case, and drag it along. According to Internet sources, the larva feeds on a variety of material, including hair, fur, silk, felt, feathers, woolen clothing, upholstered furniture and carpets. It apparently prefers darkness and soiled clothing, and is not fond of synthetic fabrics, such as nylon and polyesters. See the following image to see what it ate in a simple test performed at Wayne's Word. Photo taken with Sony T-9.

This clothes moth larva was presented with seven potential food choices: A. Black dyed silk, B. Heavy raw silk, C. Flax flake cereal, D. Linen, E. Cotton, F. Red wool, and G. Oatmeal cereal. After crawling to several different textile samples, the larva selected the Quaker oatmeal. It proceeded to feed on the oatmeal with its head protruding out of its protective case (yellow arrow). Although it is called a clothes moth, it did not seem interested in the textile samples. Photo taken with Nikon D-90 and SB-600 flash in a dimly lit room. Under prolonged bright light using photoflood lamps and a light box, the larva withdrew into its case.

Close-up view of clothes moth larva on a piece of red wool.

Bagworm Moth Family (Psychidae).

Bagworm moth cases on statue in Wisconsin. Image courtesy of Mary Ann Wojtyla.
Bagworm Moth: Family Psychidae

The larva (caterpillar) of this moth (order Lepidoptera) decorates (camouflages) its silken cocoon with materials from its environment, including conifer needles, pieces of twigs, leaves, lichens and grains of sand. The unique cases are often characteristic for each species. In fact, this family of moths are often called "case moths." Depending on the species, bagworm cases range in size from less than 1 cm to 15 cm (6 inches). They are usually innocuous to humans, although some cases can be rather unsightly on ornamentals. Some bagworm larvae are pests of trees and shrubs because they feed on the leaves. Caddisfly larvae of the insect order Trichoptera make very similar cocoons decorated with materials from their aquatic environment.

  Caddisflies (Order Trichoptera)  

Left: Illustration by Edward Julius Detmold. Plate from Fabre's Book of Insects (1921). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sphinx Moth Family (Sphingidae)

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata). Left: Larva in Borrego Springs feeding on brown-eyed evening primrose (Camissonia claviformis ssp. piersonii). Like the tomato hornworm (Manduca sexta), the larva (called a hornworm) has a horn-like projection at its posterior end. Although formidable in appearance, the spine is harmless and is apparently only "for show" to discourage predators. Like the tomato hornworm, the larva burrows into the ground to pupate; however, the pupa lacks the peculiar "jug handle" of the tomato hornworm. During spring with sufficient winter rainfall and abundant wildflowers, these caterpillars literally swarm on desert vegetation. They have a voracious appetite for a variety of wildflowers, and will even feed on some cultivated species. Right: Adult moth taking off from a light box. The common name refers to the broad, oblique stripe running from the base to the tip of the forewing; the stripe is interrupted by numerous transverse white streaks. The hind wing is pink with black at the base and margins. The name "sphinx moth" refers to the alarm posture of the larvae. With its anterior end reared back and head tucked under, it suggests the famous Sphinx edifice in Egypt.

Immature larva of (Hyles lineata) on the leaf of Gazania rigens var. leucolaena.

Hyles lineata Hovering While Feeding On Penstemon Flowers
Hyles lineata Larva Feeding On Wildflowers In Burned Area

Dorsal view of (Manduca sexta) with its wings fully extended. Note the 6 orange spots on the moth's abdomen. The 6th spot is barely discernible. A closely related species (M. quinquemaculata) has 5 orange spots on its abdomen.

Click on the photograph to see camouflaged larva on a light box.

Larva of hawkmoth (Manduca sexta) in its classic "sphinx pose." This is actually a fright posture with the front end raised up and head tucked under, suggesting the famous Sphinx edifice in Egypt. The larva is camouflaged by color and disruptive markings.

Larva of hawkmoth (Manduca sexta) feeding on foliage and stems of 'Anaheim' chile pepper (Capsicum chilense), a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) along with tomatoes.

Larva of hawkmoth (Manduca sexta), better known as a "tomato worm." The head is on far left.

A Hawkmoth That Feeds On Jimsonweed & Tomatoes

Hawkmoth Pollination

We Have Native Long-Tongued Hawkmoths In San Diego County!

Pacific Green Sphinx Moth (Family Sphingidae)

This unusual moth was recently reported from Julian in San Diego County. Its remarkable color pattern matches military camouflage. "Camouflage" in military uniforms, the word spelled the same in French, dates back to French armies in the early 1900s. Moths developed this much earlier through the process of natural selection to avoid being caught and eaten. The latter process was made famous by a man named Charles Darwin.

Did moth evolve to match military jacket, or was jacket pattern created to match moth?

Proserpinus lucidus is a very early season species. Adults are active during the winter months, from mid-January to mid-April. There is one generation per year. Males are nocturnal and come to light, whereas females are rarely collected and might be sedentary, diurnal, or unattracted to light. This species does not feed as adults. Larvae feed on wildflower genera Clarka and Camissonia (Onagraceae). Pupation occurs under leaf litter and underground during the summer and fall months. Adults emerge the following winter.

Bee Hawk Moths (Family Sphingidae Genus Hemaris)

These moths are also referred to as "clearwing moths" because the scales are shed from wings leaving clear (transparent) patches. In Hemaris and related genera the transparent wings and robust, fuzzy body superficially resembles a bee in the order Hymenoptera.

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) on Lantana in Twin Oaks Valley, San Diego County. This is one of the many fascinating species in the genus Hemaris, also called "bee hawk moths."

Mimicry: One insect (called a mimic) that is perfectly palatable to its predator resembles another insect (called the model) that is quite disagreeable to the same predator. There are actually two types of mimicry: Batesian and Mullerian. Mimicry in which the mimic is essentially defenseless is called Batesian Mimicry. A harmless moth (Aegeria) is a Batesian mimic because it is incapable of stinging another animal, but yet it resembles the yellow jacket wasp (Vespula). Mimicry in which the mimic shares the same defensive mechanism as the model is called Mullerian mimicry. The yellow jacket wasp and bumblebee (Bombus) are Mullerian mimics because they both have bright yellow and black colors and use powerful stings as a defensive mechanism.

This moth resembles a wasp. Is this an example of Batesian or Mullerian mimicry?

Ceanothus Silk Moth (Family Saturniidae)

Lateral view of an adult ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus).

Dorsal view of an adult ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus).
More Information About The Ceanothus Silk Moth

Black Witch Moth (Superfamily Noctuoidea: Family Erebidae)

Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata): A large, nocturnal, migratory moth occasionally seen in southern California. There are records of female moths with wingspans of 20 cm. (8 inches). The unusual diagnostic marking on each forewing is a spot shaped like the number nine or a comma. They are typically dark brown, but may appear darker depending on the lighting. This species has an enormous distribution across the United States (including Hawaii) and south to Brazil. It is also migratory into Canada. Because it is so unusual, people have attributed all sorts of folklore to this moth, hence the common name "black witch." Wikipedia has a lot of mythological information beyond the scope of Wayne's Word. It is doubtful that you will win the lottery if one lands above your door. Special thanks to naturalist Hannah MacDonald for finding & photographing this remarkable moth in Vista, California.

Yucca Moths (Family Prodoxidae)

Please Go To Article About The Yucca & Yucca Moth

Jumping Bean Moth (Family Olethreutidae)

Please Go To Article About Mexican Jumping Beans

Crambidae: The Crambid Snout Moth Family

This attractive pink moth showed up in my living room at a birthday party. It is truly an escape artist. After it escaped from my light box, I found it later on my brown microscope table (see above image). Its larvae feed on the buds of sages (Salvia), its host plant. I have 3 species of Salvia in my yard: The native Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) and the introduced sages: Canary Island sage (S. canariensis) and Mexican sage (S. leucantha). This moth has a snout at its anterior (head) end. There are also snout butterflies (Libytheana carinenta) in the butterfly family Nymphalidae.

  Sages Of The Genus Salvia (Mint Family: Lamiaceae)  
See Southern Snout Butterfly In The Superstitions  


  1. Evans, A.V. 2007. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York, New York.

  2. Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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