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What are the little yellow butterflies seen around here in late summer and early fall?

Ben Steelman

Most likely, those are cloudless sulphur butterflies (Phoebis sennae), according to Richard Stickney, a lepidoptrist (scientist who studies butterflies) and a curator with the butterfly house at the N.C. Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

Cloudless sulphur butterflies are common along the Coastal Plain from Florida to Canada. They actually stay here, and reproduce here, during the spring and summer, but they are most apparent now because they’re migrating — “just like the monarch,” Stickney said, “but not as far and not in such big numbers.”

These sulphurs migrate a few at a time, Stickney said, and unlike the monarchs (who fly all the way to Mexico and Central America), they’ll only journey as far as Florida and the upper Caribbean area. They take their time; Stickney has seen cloudless sulphurs in eastern North Carolina as late as December.

Cloudless sulphur butterfly. Photo by Bob Peterson

Cloudless sulphur butterfly. Photo by Bob Peterson

Cloudless sulphurs are actually fairly good-sized as butterflies go, with wingspans of 2 1/8 to nearly 3 inches. Their pitcher-shaped eggs (white, turning to a pale orange) hatch into yellow to greenish caterpillars, marked by stripes on their sides and rows of black dots on their backs.

As the name implies, the adult cloudless sulphur has clear yellow wings, the shade of sulfur, with almost no other markings. The male is clear yellow on the top of its wings, with maybe some reddish or brownish mottling on the bottom, while the female is lemon-yellow to golden on both sides, with occasional black spots.

This butterfly favors open spaces, gardens and seashores. It feeds on nectar from a variety of flowers. Stickney said its favorite treats are red, tubular flowers, such as impatiens, but it will also be drawn to morning glory, lantana, marigolds, petunias, rose verbena and zinnias. In season, it loves azaleas.

Click here to see a photo of a cloudless sulphur, just emerged from its chrysalis — taken in New Hanover County.

This article appeared in the StarNews on Sept. 4, 2009.

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10 Responses to “ What are the little yellow butterflies seen around here in late summer and early fall?”

  1. On August 30, 2009 at 6:35 am Michele wrote:

    I always wondered the name of these. Growing up here, I remember these delicate butterflies from my childhood. It seems they are always abundant at the end of summer, and seem to trek towards the east towards the beach. I always saw them as a signal that summer was about over and fall was approaching. Thanks for the answer!

  2. On August 30, 2009 at 10:19 am Chris wrote:

    Thanks for the info. I love to watch the delightful little butterflies gather around my impatiens.

  3. On August 30, 2009 at 8:15 pm Kathy Romano wrote:

    The migration of the yellow butterflies is also known as a sign that it’s time for the “spots” to start running in the intercoastal waterway of North Carolina.

  4. On August 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm Gardner wrote:

    These butterflies lay little caterpillars on your vegetables, and other leafy flower plants such as angel trumpets. These caterpillars will eat through your crops in days and destroy them. I am battling them right now!

  5. On August 31, 2010 at 10:51 am L Bellis wrote:

    I am currently on Topsail Island, ocean front rental, and the Cloudless Sulphur Butterflies are heading north. Streams of them have gone by in the last few days, and continue to. Any relation to the possible hurricane(s) that are coming/forming? Thanks!

  6. On August 31, 2010 at 4:46 pm Chris Collins wrote:

    I live in Sunset Beach and these little guys are all over the place. The comment about them liking red impatians is totally correct. I have red and white in groupings and it seems that they always stop and have a snack before moving on. Was out mowing the grass yesterday and I was the object of their desire as my lawnmower is red. Thanks for the info!!

  7. On September 6, 2010 at 5:26 pm T Almond wrote:

    We were at Carolina Beach this weekend, ocean front, and we saw probably a million of these guys fly by heading north!! I even took a video of them. Does anyone know where they are headed??

  8. On October 13, 2011 at 7:56 pm Margaret wrote:

    We saw the little yellow butterflies with small Monarchs today at the winery in Deming, New Mexico. I wonder if they migrate with the Monarchs….

  9. On October 3, 2016 at 3:28 pm Dee wrote:

    We’re in Cabo San Lucas Mexico at the moment and there have been hundreds of these little butterflies flying south all day. My son was skimming and there were butterflies all around him at 8 am. It’s now 1:38 and they’re still flying along the beach, all in the same direction.

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