The 5 Largest Butterflies in the United States

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Most have a travel speed of 5 to 12 miles per hour; all begin life as caterpillars before transforming into colorful, people-friendly pollinators. Butterflies, or “self-propelled flowers,” as science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein described them, live everywhere except Antarctica. The North American Butterfly Association estimates 575 species appear in the United States. The largest of them have 3- to 7-inch wingspans.

5 Julia Butterfly

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The bright orange Julia or Flambeau butterfly likes the warm climate of the Florida peninsula and southern Texas. Its 3 1/4- to 3 5/8-inch wingspan makes it the fifth largest butterfly found in the U.S. Julia tickles, or irritates, Caiman crocodiles’ eyes to provoke tears to drink. It favors flower nectar, especially from shepherd’s needle and lantana plants.

4 Giant White

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The fourth largest butterfly, the giant white, or Ganyra Josephina, can be found in southern Texas and seen occasionally in California, New Mexico, Kansas and Florida. The giant white lives on nectar from flowering weeds and plants such as bougainvillea, eupatorium and lantana. It has a round black spot on the upper forewing, which appears faded on females during the dry season. Wingspan of the giant white ranges from just under 3 to nearly 4 inches.

3 Zebra Longwing

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With a wingspan of 2-3/4 to 4 inches, the Zebra Heliconian, or zebra longwing, calls the southern United States home. Pollen and nectar from plants, such as shepherd’s needle and lantana, make up the diet of this black and yellow-striped Florida state butterfly. Eating pollen extends the lifespan of the third-largest U.S. butterfly to several months, rather than the average two to four weeks of most species.

2 Monarch

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The orange and black monarch—Danaus plexippus—has a 3 3/8- to 4 7/8-inch wingspan, making it the second largest butterfly across the U.S. According to the U.S. Forest Service, monarchs from the western U.S. and Rocky Mountains travel to California coastal areas around San Diego, while those from the East Coast migrate to fir forests in Mexico to overwinter. Monarch larvae feed on milkweed plants; adults thrive on nectar from a variety of flowers. Texas and five other states—West Virginia, Alabama, Minnesota, Illinois and Idaho—named the Monarch its state insect.

1 Giant Swallowtail

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The largest butterfly found in the U.S.—the giant swallowtail—measures between 4.6 and 7.4 inches, depending on gender. Known as Papilio cresphontes in the science community, this brilliant yellow and black insect dines on the nectar of azalea, goldenrod, dame’s rocket and bougainvillea. Its habitats include citrus groves, pine flats and rocky or sandy streamsides.

Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.

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