Have you seen this cheater butterfly?

June 14, 2021 2:25 PM
Blog Post

Over the last 5 days, I’ve been asked numerous times about a small butterfly roaming the gravel roads and wooded areas around Iowa. It’s a fast, skittish insect and tracking down a good photo has been really tough. They are described by entomologists as mercurial, or subject to sudden and unpredictable behaviors. The best I could do was capture this small mass of adults over the weekend:

hackberry emperor butterfly.
Five hackberry emperor butterflies “puddling” on a dung pile at Pinicon Ridge Park. Photo by Erin Hodgson

I got some identification from entomology expert Dr. Donald Lewis. He thought it was the hackberry emperor butterfly. Unlike a lot of other butterflies, the adults are rarely seen visiting flowers. They can be found throughout North America and are most commonly found near wooded roadsides and streams. As the common name suggests, larvae defoliate hackberry leaves.

hackberry emperor butterfly.
The undersides of the wings are light tan with dark bands and have colorful eyespots. Photo by Mike Boone, Wikipedia.org.

The undersides of the wings are light tan with dark bands and have colorful eyespots. Photo by Mike Boone, Wikipedia.org.

General body description:

  1. Adults have sexual dimorphism: females are a bit bigger and lighter in color.
  2. Bodies can range in color, but are typically tan to reddish brown.
  3. Forewings and hindwings have many dark and light eyespots, and range from 1.3-2.5-inch wing span.
  4. The very tips of the antennae are white.

hackberry emperor butterfly.
Top view of hackberry emperor, note the white tips on the antennae. Photo by Anne Toal, Wikipedia.org.

Cool notes:

  1. Adults will feed on nectar of hackberry flowers. But they hover while feeding and don’t touch the plant. As a result, they aren’t considered pollinators because they don’t pick up pollen on their bodies. They are known as “cheater” species.
  2. Adults most commonly feed on feces, dead animals, and old fruit.
  3. This butterfly is in a different species than painted lady butterflies and is NOT considered a field crop pest.

Erin Hodgson Professor

Dr. Erin Hodgson started working in the Department of Entomology, now the Department of Plant Pathology, Entomology, and Microbiology, at Iowa State University in 2009. She is a professor with extension and research responsibilities in corn and soybeans. She has a general background in integrated...