Butterflies, Moths and Caterpillars

We are fortunate to live on the Olympic Peninsula for so many reasons. One that doesn’t get enough attention is that we are blessed with such spectacular insects. In the first of a three-part series on insects, we’ll look at some local butterflies and moths, and in the larval stage of Lepidopteran metamorphosis, caterpillars.

Pre-Covid, I followed local entomologist Richard Lewis on a couple of field trips. He explained that butterflies are good indicators of a healthy environment; if butterflies are present, so will be native bees and other beneficial insects. Richard told us that caterpillars are an important food source for many animals, and he quoted author / entomologist Douglas Tallamy, who determined that 96% of North America’s terrestrial bird species rear their young on insects, not seeds and berries, and most of those insects are caterpillars and moths.

For a field guide, I recommend Merrill A. Peterson’s Pacific Northwest Insects. Please visit the new Butterfly Garden in the Kul Kah Han Native Plant Garden in H. J. Carroll Park in Chimacum. A gorgeous sign by Larry Eifert will soon grace the butterfly section of the garden. Here are some of my favorite butterflies, one moth, and a few spectacular inch-long caterpillars.

The fuzzy-bodied adult Silver-spotted Tiger Moth (Lophocampa argentata) is cocoa-brown with grayish-beige spots. In its caterpillar stage it has a bumpy body with yellow and orange spikes like a punk hairdo. Its little feet grab like suction cups. I found it in front of my house in Port Townsend on a spring day.

Lophocampa argentata (Silver-spotted Tiger Moth Caterpillar)

Its cousin, the Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata), is an orangish-brown and apricot moth. I found its caterpillar on my car one day, sporting a fuzzy black and yellow body with dramatic white spikes. When I gently placed it on the ground, it curled into a ball.

Lophocampa maculata caterpillar of Spotted Tussock Moth or Yellow-Spotted Tiger Moth

Another cousin, the Rusty Tussock Moth (Orgyia antiqua), is a rather drab moth with feathery antennae. It produces this spectacular caterpillar, who showed up in my garden one day. Tussock Moth caterpillars chew leaves, but adult Tussock Moths don’t feed at all.

Orgyia antiqua (Rusty Tussock Moth or Vapourer)

You may be familiar with the black and orange Isabella Tiger Moth’s “Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar.” Here’s a fancier relative, Subtribe Spilosomina, with lemon-yellow spikes.

Subtribe Spilosomina A member of Tiger Moths Tribe Arctiini

And now a caterpillar not from a moth, but from a butterfly, an Edith’s Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha colonia), with spikes and also a geometric pattern along its body. Edith’s Checkerspot butterflies, and sometimes their caterpillars, cavort in summer on Hurricane Hill.

Euphydryas editha colonia (Edith’s Checkerspot) caterpillar

In June, on DNR land above Discovery Bay, dozens of Clodius Parnassian (Parnassius clodius) nectared on several flowers, including this Siberian Miner’s Lettuce. Notice the red spots and transparent wings. The Parnassius is a favorite of famed entomologist Robert Michael Pyle.

Clodius Parnassian (Parnassius clodius)

The small Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) was introduced from Europe and Asia to control the introduced weed, Tansy Ragwort, deadly to cattle and horses. Its caterpillar feeds happily on the ragwort. This day-flying moth appeared bright red when it flew about on Marrowstone Island.

Tyria jacobaeae (Cinnabar Moth)

The author of my field guide, Merrill A. Peterson, says swallowtails “include our largest and arguably most spectacular butterflies.” This Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) is “nectaring” on a wildflower, Coast Penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus), in my  garden.

Papilio eurymedon (Pale Swallowtail) on Penstemon serrulatus

A pair of Purplish Coppers (Lycaena helloides) are nectaring on another native plant, Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), on Hurricane Ridge. “Copper” and “Blue” butterflies are considered “Gossamer-winged Butterflies” because of the shimmering colors on their upperside.

Lycaena helloides (Purplish Copper aka Epidemia) on Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly Everlasting)

The Pine White (Neophasia menapia) is a beautiful back and white butterfly that emerges from its chrysalis on its host plants, tall trees including the Douglas Fir tree, and flutters down like a snowflake in August. Here it’s nectaring on Subalpine Fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) in my garden.

Neophasia menapia (Pine White) male on Erigeron peregrinus (Subalpine Fleabane)

The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), a “Brush-footed Butterfly,” can be seen at Anderson Lake in summer. Although its orange, black, and white wing patterns are spectacular when its wings are open, the designs are even more intricate on the underside of its wings, as in this photo. The caterpillars feed on nettle leaves.

Vanessa atalanta (Red Admiral)

Top photo: Hydaspe Fritillary (Speyeria hydaspe) in the Buckhorn Wilderness of the Olympic Mountains. All photos by Wendy Feltham


  1. Wonderful photography. This article will make me a much more observant viewer of our insect population. Looking forward to the next in the series.

  2. Thank you, Wendy! Beautiful photography. It great to have the photos so I know a little more about what I’m seeing!

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