Happy Monday-Which is Which?

Monarch and Viceroy

I thought I might talk about two butterflies, one that comes to visit, and one that stays in the area over winter.  Why I am talking about this is not so much that they are improperly identified, but that some people may not know, while one leaves for the Oramel fir trees in Mexico, the other stays put right where it is hatched. My watercolor illustration above shows them side-by-side. I doubt I would get a photograph like this, so I decided to paint it.

I was in a car traveling with a group of friends recently and casually mentioned I was at the farm shooting butterflies this past week and was surprised to see them after our cooler weather. In fact, I was really surprised, because the day I was shooting, I myself was wearing a sweater. It was very bright and sunny though, just a little nip in the air.

No sooner than I mention this, I am contradicted by one of my travel companions, saying that I could not have been shooting Monarchs in our area. I never mentioned that Monarchs were my subject, so I proceeded to tell them that I was well aware that I was not taking photos of Monarchs, but in fact, it was Viceroys.

This person insisted that the butterflies are long gone and I might be mistaken. I don’t think I am mistaken because these images below were taken on October 30.  I was amazed to see the butterflies.

I told the individual that no, some stay to reproduce and overwinter in the area. They will take flight when the sun is bright enough to warm their wings. I was so surprised to be questioned because it was a comment of no particular importance, just an observation on my part that we still had feeding butterflies. But, I must thank my friend, for without her dogged insistence on that day, I would not have done this post.

The two images, one above and one below, were taken on the day in question. I just included the Cabbage White, or is it an albino Common Sulphur, because they never sit long enough to get a photo. This day, he was a bit more obliging. A little green too, although there were some whiter ones fluttering about.

I explained that both the Viceroy and Monarch look very similar to one another and this is by design. The Monarch, due to feeding on milkweed, has an unpalatable taste to birds. This does not mean they will not be snatched by a bird by mistake, but most likely will not be eaten. The Viceroy on the other hand, tastes mighty good to a bird, but having similar markings is often left alone courtesy of its look-alike disguise. The identifier to you and I is a black line across the lower wings of the Viceroy, otherwise it is a very convincing imposter.

The Viceroy’s caterpillar over winters rolled up in leaf bits, if it is a young caterpillar, or if older, will roll the leaf around itself to over winter. These balls they make of leaf bits are attached to the host plant of a poplar or willow. Viceroys have two or three generations born each season, and therefore have different stages of caterpillars developing.

The larvae looks like bird droppings so they are pretty darn safe from predators.

A beautiful image of a Viceroy larva was found  here. It is from The Flying Kiwi, a blog by Richard Seaman, Detroit Michigan. He has the most amazing images of dragonflies and a pair of American Rubyspots mating. You have to see his damselflies too. These are the most beautiful images. He really makes my photos look amateurish. I could not use his image because he sells them, but you may want to take a look.

The Viceroy emerge again, in our area, around May to June. This is temperature driven and leaf-out occurs when temperatures are suitable for the trees. They will generally be seen in our area through September, but may last longer, weather permitting, like the ones that I saw the last week. They are speculated to live for several months, where other butterflies live for maybe six weeks.


Viceroy butterflies are usually found near marshes and open water. The Viceroy caterpillars preference of food is willow, cottonwood and poplar leaves, but if not available, they will eat the leaves of apple, cherry and plum trees in meadows and wooded areas. After all, the only job a caterpillar has is to eat. The final instar takes between 10 – 15 days to go from chrysalis to butterfly. Here is a video on Viceroy butterflies.

As adults, they like thistle, asters and goldenrod. They will not pass up rotting fruit or Joe Pye weed either.

Did you know that butterfly’s skin does not grow with them? This is a cool fact. They produce new skin underneath the outer skin. They molt through the first four instar stages making a new skin each time. The fifth stage is one most are familiar with, when the final molt produces a hardened outer skin or shell, the chrysalis. No wonder they eat so much. Sorry, a sidetrack, but I love the complexity of nature.

Even though Viceroys seem to have the prey/predator scenario licked, they are not as common as Monarchs. The farm has an abundance of willow and poplar, a few ponds and streams, and hence many more Viceroy than Monarchs.

Monarchs are generally bigger than Viceroys. This  Monarch above, is dining on Coreopsis during the summer; you can see no line on the hind wings. Also, there are no big willows or poplars here in my area. We do get Viceroy on occasion because of the poplar at the gorge, but far more Monarchs due to the plentiful milkweed there as well. I planted aster this year in hope of getting Viceroy to visit. I also have other plants I am planting to get all kinds of beautiful butterflies. See my post on In Quest of a Butterfly. You can see how the only one Monarch I saw this summer here at 664 was mistakenly snatched by a house wren. Actually two Monarchs came by the end of summer as they do like some of my  existing plants like the coreopsis above.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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40 Responses to Happy Monday-Which is Which?

  1. Its so fascinating to me to see 2 creatures look so much alike and that one has a better chance of survival because the other doesn’t taste as good! Whichever you find in your garden, they sure are pretty!

    • They say that birds can not distinguish the Viceroy from above in flight. That is how they sometimes make a mistake. But once they do, they never do it again. I also read, any animal that eats a Monarch will vomit. They must really have a nauseating flavor.

  2. PatioPatch says:

    Hi Donna – another truly great post. You are certainly up on your butterflies and lucky to have a habitat that attracts both these regally titled look-alike beauties. Your watercolour is very lovely – so many talents! (Is your avatar a self-portrait?)
    p.s. the link to the dragonflies was gob-stopping

    • Laura,
      I just got the email for your comment. Was that not the greatest images in blogland? I was so amazed at the detail and the action. The mating image was spectacular. Thanks on the watercolor. It was a quick little sketchbook type painting because I could never get them to pose together, probably even if I captured them.

      And yes, my avatar image is me on the go. My Jeep is a different model now, but I did have a CJ7 at one time. Plus the roof is entirely removed on a CJ7, my Jeep now has a moon roof. The avatar would lose the cuteness.

  3. One says:

    Hi Donna, Love your watercolor and thanks for the info. I tried to spot the differences in the first painting but failed till I read your explanation. Interesting!

    • It is funny you missed the line. I actually exaggerated it a bit. Artistic license and all. I am glad you liked it. I would never get them together because they feed on different plants most of the time.

  4. Greenearth says:

    Not knowledgeable about butterflies, but love their colors. Especially love your photo of butterfly and flowers together.

  5. Thanks for a very informative post! I have the hardest time telling butterflies apart. There are a few common ones that I know and love but mostly I just watch. We have a Butterfly Garden, enclosed in glass, at the Museum of Natural Science. But every time I go, I’m too distracted by the plants! Love the watercolor of the Monarch and Viceroy. There’s a post in there, too, about the royal court…

    • Elizabeth,
      I think everybody has a hard time identifying, me included until I really look at the insect. Birds can not tell flying above then either. I was surprised to read that. You would think nature would have that covered by now with butterflies evolving over time. It takes them to make the mistake and grab a Monarch, then they NEVER do it again for either butterfly. The Viceroy had a good gig going.

  6. Well, thank you for that new wrinkle in my brain! I’ll have to be on the lookout for Viceroys now. I have a vague remembrance of hearing this information before, but your painting and information will make it stick — I hope 🙂 Love your watercolor! I’d love to learn to paint – I know I would enjoy it. Finding the time is the next issue. It might be less detrimental to my health, though, than working like a dog diggin’ in the dirt like I have been doing. I have a friend who took up gardening just so that she’d have her own flowers to paint. I’m sure it is very relaxing.

    • I have recently started to lay off working so much to ‘stop and smell the roses’. I still work a lot, but started blogging to do something I like to do and not have any job pressures and seriousness of the occupation. I am lucky in that I do not dig in the dirt too often. My job is strictly all the phases of design only. I do billing, bidding and proposal work for my friends nursery too, so that is why I am never off the computer. Digging in the dirt is kinda like blogging. My mind can wonder and not have to be computing, or composing.

  7. Karen says:

    Donna, thank you for a lesson on butterflies, and a very enjoyable one at that! I never knew the difference before, but I will now. I followed the links to the other sites, amazing photos. I’m glad you had the disagreement with your acquaintance over the two types of butterflies, or we may not have had the opportunity to see this post. Your watercolor is amazing, you have so much talent.

    • Karen,
      I am so surprised with how many seasoned gardeners and photographers of insects that so many people are saying they are pleased for the information. I actually thought the only thing maybe not known was the that the Viceroy stays where it is hatched. My friend did not know the difference, but she is not an avid gardener. I am glad the post was helpful.

  8. Bom says:

    That was a very interesting post. I thought the difference was in the design of their outer wings. I completely missed the black line.

    BTW, wonderful watercolor! So your talents lay not only in gardening.

  9. Cat says:

    Great information Donna. Your artistic abilities are vast and we’re lucky that you share so many of them here at GWGT! Thanks for all the information – I’ll look more closely from now on.

  10. p3chandan says:

    Your watercolour on those two beautiful creatures is just amazing! Most of us take for granted that they are the same by looking at the similar colour fo their wings. Your post here will surely make us more observant and look for that black markings!

    • I always did the same in taking them for granted, until I noticed the two butterflies at the farm and my property. They were different. So I looked it up. And kept looking. I was fascinated by nature’s way of keeping an already rarer butterfly safe along with a more popular one by one just tasting yucky and the other looking like the one with the bad flavor. Cool.

  11. Waaay cool information, Donna. And as always, I love your art work.

  12. patty says:

    Next year I will definitely be making sure that I am see Monarchs and not Viceroys, or vise versa. Thanks for the artful clarification.

  13. TS says:

    Great post! I love your paintings!! One more fact about monarchs is that as adults their bodies are black with white dots. They look polked dotted.

    • Funny, I painted the black first and then went back with the white dots. Usually in watercolor, not illustration, I would leave the white areas without color, so I hope I got it right. The dots were too small to paint the right way.

  14. fer says:

    Beautiful post! I love your illustration.

  15. fairegarden says:

    Thank you, Donna for this informative, interesting and beautiful post. I do love your watercolors too. This story had me running to the photo files to check out the recent monarch, I thought, shots on the mums. It was indeed a monarch, a loner and late, on a long journey. It is gone now, just in time since we had a hard frost recently. You have done a great public service in a wonderful way. 🙂

    • Frances,
      Thank you so much for the compliments. I was guessing you would know the difference and identify them correctly. I checked first that you had Viceroys and I guess you do. While looking, I found out the Viceroy is Kentucky’s state insect. And another link said the Viceroy lays eggs on the Tennessee flare plant. No further info, but maybe you know.

  16. Tatyana says:

    Thank you Donna for educating me! I love when you include your own illustrations in your posts. Lovely!

  17. Pam/Digging says:

    Great information! I usually go by size when trying to discern the difference, but now I’ll know to look for those black lines on the lower wings.

    • Size is not always reliable. Some Viceroys get as large as small Monarchs. But, it is a good first look. I try to see the line. I find them on different plants too at the farm. I guess with the big selection, they have their favorites.

  18. Lovely illustration of the differences of the Monarch and Viceroy Donna. Funny how a healthy debate between friends can inspire a posting. Weather can play a role in butterflies suddenly appearing long after most would think them long gone. I have known butterflies to remain in a chrysalis for over two months to come out in November. We can never know all the reasons as to why. Unfortunately for the Monarch some birds have figured out how to eat parts of the butterfly body and spit out the toxic part. This happens often in Mexico. They also have to be on the look up from squirrels etc. Mimics are an amazing tale of the interconnected intelligence within nature. Terrific post! ;>)

    • Really great comment. I did not know the bird’s are on to them. Maybe that is what happened to my Monarch earlier this year. The Wren had it all figured out. I was just thinking he made a mistake and was going to let the flapping butterfly go. I never did see the conclusion, as the wren went 90 feet up in the air to the top of a huge Norway maple for his meal. News on squirrels too. I thought mammals would get a stomach ache and not eat them after that. Good to know. I knew you very knowledgable on the Monarchs from your previous postings. How I would love to see them in Mexico. There is a short time window, right?

  19. tina says:

    They are surely beautiful in such a nice garden.

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